When my friend, Ian, and I told people that we were planning to have a day out in Stockton on Tees in late January, I think we were thought of as slightly mad. After-all, we were authoritatively informed: “there’s nothing there.” However, it all depends on what one is looking for. What may appear to be “nothing” at first glance, may soon be revealed to be something interesting if one has only a cursory dig beneath the surface.
So why go to Stockton? At first there seem more reasons NOT to visit it. It’s a declining industrial town with its fair share of unemployment and poverty. The manufacturing industries that created its wealth — shipbuilding and engineering– have closed down. It’s once busy river port is no more. Many buildings are in a state of decay, or have been boarded up. Stockton sits in a largely forgotten corner of North-East England. It has even found a place in the top 100 of Britain’s infamous “crap towns” listed in the book: ” Crap Towns Returns: Back by Unpopular Demand.” So, plenty of reasons to avoid it then, but we still went and enjoyed it. Why? Is it that we are just plain perverse? No — our answer would be the same as that of a climber asked why he/she wanted to ascend a mountain. The answer is ” because it’s there!” I have a theory that every place is interesting if one is willing to be interested in it.
Places represent people and their everyday lives. Other people’s existances are always interesting. Add-in all the lives of past generations and past centuries, then you’ve let yourself in for a fascinating journey, linking the present with the past. Walking round a town equipped with : eyes, imagination, and a bit of research, can be really stimulating. And so it proved to be with Stockton. We armed ourselves with a town trail obtained from the local Tourist Information Centre and set off on our day of discovery.
Ask most general knowledge buffs about Stockton and they’ll probably come up with one famous fact: the World’s first public railway in 1825 ran from Darlington to Stockton. The line was built by the railway pioneer, George Stephenson. Its purpose was to carry coal from the Durham coalfields around Darlington to the important river port of Stockton in Tees, from where it could be shipped to all corners of the country and beyond. The line actually ran from Shildon to Stockton via Darlington. Initially, the trucks were to be hauled at walking pace by horses. However, Stephenson persuaded the Directors to experiment with the new invention, the steam locomotive. Stephenson himself drove his Locomotion No 1 on that first record breaking journey. The train consisted of a mixture of trucks of coal and flour and passenger coaches. Altogether about 600 to 700 people travelled on that very first steam train journey, clinging on in all sorts of precarious positions. The train featured the world’s first purpose built railway passenger coach “The Experiment”. Stephenson was ably assisted by his friend, fellow engineer and railway pioneer, Timothy Hackworth, who acted as the guard. At the head of the train for much of the 12 mile journey, walked a man with a red flag, an early example of health and safety getting in the way of adventure. Eventually the man with the flag was persuaded to step aside and the train picked up speed a little. However it still averaged less than 10 mph for the entire journey. It was hardly earth shattering stuff but was a dramatic “first”, and Stockton, that “crap” town, was at the centre of this world famous event.
Stockton is now surrounded by busy roads. The major trunk routes of the A19 and the A66 pass to the east and south of it respectively. Crowded 2 or 3 lane roads and busy roundabouts encircle the old town centre. In fact, a noisy dual-carriageway cuts off the centre from the River Tees, which used to be its life-blood. We had to climb up on to a pedestrian bridge to access the waterside. The once bustling port that used to feature 48 working vessels, is no more. All that is left is a pleasure cruiser used in summer and a replica of Captain James Cook’s “Endeavour”, used for entertainment and educational purposes.
Thus there are few hints that Stockton was once a thriving river port, and even fewer clues that it helped to give birth to the railways. A modern metal sculpture, on a grassy bank just outside the centre, depicts that famous first train, complete with the top-hatted flag-waver at its head. However, it significant that this is sited by a road not a railway. Stockton does still have a train station but it is a bit out of the town centre and sits on a branch line off a branch line. The full original line ceases to exist. It used to run along the quayside by the Tees to 4 sets of staithes ( jetties) where the coal was loaded on to ships. Today’s station is on the quiet Durham coast line which meanders its way between Thornaby ( near Middlesbrough) and Newcastle via Hartlepool and Sunderland. There is just one train an hour each way. The current building dates from 1893. It has two quite long platforms linked by a bridge, but it has no staff and no roof. The latter was removed in 1979 because it was in such a bad state of repair. The waiting rooms, booking hall and toilets have gone, to be replaced by a couple of plastic shelters with little perching seats.
Ian and I travelled to this slightly forlorn station from opposite directions. We were the only people to alight from our respective trains. The station was deserted apart from one confused foreign visitor, trying to get to Manchester. It was difficult to imagine that this was a world famous place in railway history. To be fair, the current Stockton station is not in the same location as the former terminus of the 1825 Stockton to Darlington railway. Was it completely devoid of its illustrious history? Well, not quite. As we left the station, we noticed that the old station buildings had been refurbished, added to and turned into apartments named after the railway pioneer Hackworth. It would have been nice if the approach road had been christened George Stephenson Way, but it wasn’t. Just before we headed off for the town, the London to Sunderland Grand Central express, passed through Stockton. It slowed down but didn’t stop. Stockton is now largely divorced from its railway heritage and has been shunted into an obscure siding.
Stockton today is an intriguing mixture of the good, the bad and the ugly. Although it is surrounded by some fairly depressing, run-down streets, the old medieval core is pretty impressive. (at least, we thought so.) We entered a wide spacious High Street which twice a week hosts North-East England’s largest open air market. The street is flanked by a selection of 18th, 19th and 20th century buildings now put to a variety of commercial uses. Some are neglected and run-down, but we could easily imagine how grand it must have been in its Georgian hey-day. In the centre sits a square, red-brick early 18th century Town Hall. It has 3 stories, an ornate clock tower, a red pan-tiled roof and four, large chimney stacks. Once it had a meeting room for the Mayor and the Aldermen with shops underneath. Nearby is a lovely, little market hall and sitting in-between is a tall, stone column crowned by a plinth and a mysterious monument that looks a bit like an urn. We never found an explanation for it. Maybe next time we should ask one of the locals. This area used to be the site of the medieval tollbooth and a communal smithy. Alongside was the “Shambles” where butchers slaughtered and sold their animals.
Today this big, wide area is being gentrified into a pedestrian plaza which eventually will have: seats, foliage, fancy street lamps and views through to the river. When we were there this January, it was a noisy work in progress with a workman employing a teeth-grinding, stone-cutting machine. Once finished, it will be a far cry from the days of blood and guts in the gutter and the dying moans of doomed livestock.
Stockton existed as an Anglo Saxon settlement but really got going in early Norman times when the town and the borough was founded by the Bishop of Durham in the late 12th century. Initially, it consisted of 12 farms and a Manor House. The latter eventually developed into Stockton Castle, which stood until 1652 when it was demolished on the order of Oliver Cromwell’s parliament. It had been a Royalist stronghold in the English Civil war and had later been occupied by the Scots. Today the site is occupied by the rather ugly Swallow Hotel and Castlegate shopping centre with its indoor market and multi-storey car-park.
When Stockton was declared a Borough, it meant that traders, craftsmen and other business people could move in and develop the land. It was no longer a purely agricultural area. It’s site was the reason for this significant development. It was on a major river and on main road routes heading north and south. In fact Stockton stands at an important crossing point of the River Tees. For many years it was the lowest bridging point of this major waterway. That honour was eventually stolen in the later 19th century by Middlesbrough’s Transporter Bridge, 6 miles further downstream. Stockton also marked the southern border of the Bishop of Durham’s considerable lands and the border between Yorkshire and County Durham.
Despite all of this, the town only developed very slowly in the Middle Ages. It was regularly ravaged by marauding Scots and was also badly affected by the Plague. By the early 17th century it was almost derelict. Then came damaging occupations by Royalist and Scottish troops during the course of the English Civil Wars. Real prosperity only came when a Charter in 1666 granted the town a weekly market and an annual fair. This attracted trade and more prosperous times ensued. By the 18th century the town was doing really well. This is reflected by the considerable number of once fashionable Georgian town houses that are still dotted about the centre today. In the 1700’s, Stockton became a successful ship-building centre, having four shipyards by the end of the century. Sail and rope making were lucrative spin-offs. Stockton by now was a busy river port, exporting lead and agricultural produce and importing wine, raisons, glass, coal and household goods. The coming of the railway in the early 19th century enabled Stockton to expand further. Its population increased from 3700 in 1801 to 13,000 in 1861.
However, this was not as big an increase as might be expected, considering Stockton’s prime location and its connections to important events in the Industrial and Transport Revolutions. Some nearby towns underwent massive population explosions in the same period. Perhaps a big reason for this relative lack of growth was that there was already an enormous cuckoo growing up very quickly in the Tees-side nest. That was Middlesbrough just down the river. It usurped Stockton and other Teesside towns in industrial development especially in the areas of iron and steel, chemicals and shipbuilding. Middlesbrough’s nickname: “Ironopolis” sums up its industrial importance. Hartlepool also eclipsed Stockton in the rapidity and size of its industrial development, including ship-building and engineering. Thus Stockton on Tees was left somewhat in the shade. Maybe however, this wasn’t such a bad thing and was a blessing in disguise from the modern Stockton’s perspective. Some of its grand 18th century buildings have survived instead of being swept away in an headlong rush for development. Thus, these can still be appreciated today. In that earlier prosperous period ( 18th century) the town acquired pavements so its citizens didn’t have to plough through the mud. A stone 5-arched bridge was also constructed to replace the river ferry in 1771. So the place wasn’t exactly an obscure backwater. The 18th century has still clung on in 21st century Stockton and is now once again being appreciated as a glorious chapter in the town’s history.
Two rows of mostly narrow-fronted properties line the wide market place and off it run historical side streets with interesting names :- Ramsgate, Finkle Street, Silver Street, Dovecot Street and West Row. The street names often reveal their original features. For instance, an open air sheep market was once held on Ramsgate. West Row included large warehouses, some of which have been restored. We found that one had been turned into a small shopping mall. ( Regency West Mall sadly was mostly empty.) Finkle, a common street name in the north-east, means a narrow, winding road with a corner or a bend in it. It’s an old Norse name. On Stockton’s Finkle Street we admired 16th to 18th century town houses, some with pilastered doorways. Halfway up the street is a narrow opening leading into the hidden gem of Green Dragon Yard. Stockton’s centre has a number of these old, hidden away 17th and 18th century courtyards accessed by narrow alleyways. Green Dragon Yard has a restored warehouse, a pub, a building converted into a recording studio and England’s oldest surviving Georgian Theatre. The theatre was built in 1766 on to the side of a medieval Tithe barn. It’s been lovingly restored and is an intimate venue for small-scale productions. It was fascinating to spot where the stone of the old barn merged into the small 18th century bricks of the theatre. We walked through more lanes and yards into Silver Street, complete with its row of tiny 18th century cottages. From there it was a short step down to the river.
We stopped for refreshments in a little, late-medieval tea-shop. It was friendly, warm and welcoming. We had been warned that there would be mostly greasy spoon cafes in Stockton, but in fact there was a whole string of tempting teashops. Our café was called “Quaint and Quirky” which is was. I had to carefully mind my head to avoid the low beams. The view from the window partly summed up our Stockton experience. We looked out beyond the ancient timber ceiling beams through the tiny, “Tudory” windows incongruously on to the concrete, circular exit ramp of a multi-storey car park. A constant stream of quietly growling cars descended it. It would have been much more satisfying to have heard the clip-clop of horses as would have been the case when the café building was first constructed. But that sound has now mostly faded into the past. Modern Town trails are full of these strange juxtapositions. At the top of Dovecot Street is a striking, modern arts centre, The Arc. Its all gleaming glass and bright, orange paintwork. Adjacent to it stands a lovely Georgian Friend’s Meeting House now converted into office space. Across the road, in place of a recently demolished 19th century building is a pop-up car park. It’s a confusing mixture that stretches the imagination but constantly stimulates the mind.
The most abiding memory of Stockton’s centre is of the wide variety of once grand Georgian town houses. Some are beautifully restored, whilst others are sadly neglected. Ian and I studied: classical doorways with columns and pediments, fancy fanlights over entrances, decorative motifs, attractive wrought iron balconies, ornate stone cornices and symmetrical sets of sash windows. Some had 2 stories and some had 3. We learnt that the first floor public reception rooms were the grandest ( so the people could impress their visitors) and thus had the largest, most impressive windows. Quite a few of these splendid buildings were on Church Road, formerly know as “Paradise Row.” This is where the rich and successful lived, showing off their status and wealth through their grandiose homes.
Nearby the Stockton mish-mash continued with a fine 18th century Church and ancient church yard facing an undistinguished jumble 1960’s/70’s municipal offices. On the other side of the beautiful old churchyard stood a derelict, abandoned pub.
The Stockton on Tees Trail gave us glimpses of a glorious past, much evidence of a long, sad decline and a few signs of hope and regeneration. It’s a slightly down- at- heel town which is starting to appreciate its heritage and move forward towards a positive future. The Arts Theatre with its cinema, concert space, workshop areas, bars and cafes, is thriving. The Georgian Theatre is up and running again. The Globe Theatre, once the popular venue for 1960’s/70’s pop acts such as the Rolling Stones, Ike and Tina Turner, Cilla Black and Roy Orbison, is now being restored and is soon to reopen. It famously hosted The Beatles in November, 1963 on the same day that President John F Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Today, an attractive, eye-catching pavement display reminds us of its glorious recent past.
In Stockton’s centre there’s plenty to admire and hidden corners to discover. As we walked back to the train station, we felt that we had only just begun to scratch the surface. It was not a bad day out considering we were visiting one of Britain’s “crap” towns. Maybe we should revisit in the summer when the Stockton Riverside Festival is in full flow. Then we could discover yet more delights of the town where there’s “nothing to see.”
When my friend, Ian, and I told people that we were planning to have a day out in Stockton on Tees in late January, I think we were thought of as slightly mad. After-all, we were authoritatively informed: “there’s nothing there.” However, it all depends on what one is looking for. What may appear to be “nothing” at first glance, may soon be revealed to be something interesting if one has only a cursory dig beneath the surface.
It’s another New Year- 2015. It seems incredible to think that we are now a full fifteen years since the momentous millennium when the world as we know it was supposed to come to an end.
The frenzy of Christmas shopping is now just a memory. Many are facing the cold reality of credit card bills and accumulating debt. The Christmas trees have been de-baubled and discarded. Millions of recently sent Christmas cards have now disappeared from mantle-pieces, shelves and window sills. It’s the time of year when I always think — what was all the fuss about?
I used to be a teacher and so can reliably guess that the theme of school assemblies up and down the country has been New Year resolutions. It’s a hoary chestnut. It is time to turn over a new leaf, students will be told, as if a new number at the top of the calendar, magically generates a fresh start for everyone. More erudite teachers may mention Janus to their pupils, the 2-faced Roman god which gives its name to the first month of the year. One face of Janus looks forwards into the future, while the other looks back into the past. This encourages reflection on what has happened as well as making resolutions for the year ahead. I think this is a sound way of handling New Year. The lessons of the past have to be learnt if progress is to be made in the future. It’s not just a case of wiping the slate clean and starting again, regardless of what has happened.
Many of my own reflections are centred on the family. Christmas is supposed to be the special occasion when families gather to spent quality time together. However, I believe that family interactions and commitments should be a whole year thing. Families, along with pet dogs are not just for Christmas! At the start of this particular New Year, my thoughts focus on two very important male members of the family: one nearing the end of his life and the other yet to begin his. My son and daughter in law are expecting their first child, a boy, in early March. I hope all goes smoothly and I am looking forward to being a Granddad again. I already have 3 lovely grand-daughters but this little one will be my first grandson. It will be a special moment in my life. I was lucky to spend some time with the unborn bump when he visited me over new year along with his parents. It’s an awesome thing, thinking about this precious new life about to commence, the newest member of the family. He will carry the Bates name forward into future generations.( if the present sexist system of selecting surnames, persists.)
Perversely, the birth of a new family member makes me think about my own advancing years and of my own mortality. When a baby is born, everyone shuffles up a place. I remember when my first grandchild, Esme, was born, I took my first look at her and thought — ” Blimey– I’ve moved up a generation!” I am now near the top of the family tree, with just my parents ahead of me.
Yes I am very lucky to still have both my mum and dad. Sadly, last year saw a decline in their health and fitness such that they both need regular care, especially my increasingly frail dad. However, even this cloud has a silver lining. The positive result of the situation is that my siblings and I have come much closer together in order to help and support our parents. Increased family harmony and unity has been the happy result.
Just like the birth of the baby, mum and dad’s need for more care in their old age, focusses my thoughts. It’s strange how the 2 very different developments are linked. Both remind one of the continuity and longevity of the family and also the unconditional love that binds us all together, from the youngest to the oldest. Once the baby has been born, the living members of my family will span over 91 years and 4 generations. Will my father ever meet and talk to my grandson? I certainly hope so.
So, as this latest year gets into its stride, I am thinking both backwards and forwards. I think back on the many happy times I spent with my dad, who is now in hospital. awaiting a place in a nursing home. I remember the toy garage he built for me, the holidays to the seaside he organised for us all, the second-hand bike he did up so that I could have a crack at my cycling proficiency test. I recall the unflagging support and encouragement he has given to me over my entire life. I also think forward to the times I hope to spend with my new grandson — playing with toys, reading books, trips to the park and those first simple but magical conversations. What will his first words be? I already spend precious times with my 3 delightful grand-daughters.
The future balanced with the past. That’s what life is all about, particularly in late December and early January, in the reflective time when the year turns. A friend recently told me of a lovely saying he had read in a shop or restaurant–” The past is history. The future is a mystery. Today is a gift. That’s why it is called “the present.” Happy New Year!
We’ve just been on an epic American road trip — over 3000 miles in 15 days. OK, I admit it, we cheated and went by coach. But it still counts doesn’t it? We crossed the Great Plains, meandered through the towering mountain ranges and traversed the High Desert country of western USA. We were driving along the routes of the settlers and pioneers of previous centuries, who travelled ever westwards in search of a new life. It was fabulous- for us that is, not for them. Thinking back on it now, I can conjure up vivid images of endless landscapes, huge skies and constantly receding horizons. Despite the cop-out of going on a guided tour, it was still a fabulous, mind-expanding experience I feel.
Road trips and America seem to go hand in hand. This country/continent is so vast and, outside the big cities, so empty, that the traveller is liable to be overwhelmed and swallowed-up by it all. It’s almost as if one becomes part of the landscape. One gets a great sense of one’s own insignificance in the great scheme of things. The feeling can be powerful. I felt it even though I was sharing the experience with 40 other travellers. We were a large group and had a large coach which ate up the miles, but we were still easily consumed by the vastness of the lands that we were passing through. Somehow, one never gets that feeling in Britain, a crowded island with equally crowded roads. The M1, M25 or the A1 just bring up images of: roadworks, congestion, accidents and traffic jams. I dread having to drive along them. Instead of being a means of escape, they are something I want to escape from. I imagine it’s like that in America’s big cities — all those 6 lane highways filled with constant streams of traffic.( I had a brief experience of that in Miami and Orlando, on an earlier trip.) However, in the wide open spaces of Montana, Wyoming, Arizona and Utah it is a completely different story. The empty highway, stretching to a distant horizon, represents freedom rather than captivity.
Sometimes as I gazed at the never-ending prairies or got a crick in my neck trying to see the tops of mountain peaks, I had to pinch myself just to check that it was real. You see, I had done this American road trip many times before in my imagination. Countless films, songs and books had taken me on vicarious journeys through this same epic countryside. The classic “On The Road” by Jack Kerouac or, on a lighter note, Bill Bryson’s humorous “The Lost Continent”, both, in their different ways, take the reader on great journeys across the length and breadth of the USA. The road movie is a major film genre, from “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Easy Rider” in the 60’s, “Paper Moon” and “Five Easy Pieces” in the 70’s, to films like: “Thelma and Louise”, David Lynch’s “The Straight Story”, “Sideways” and “Little Miss Sunshine” in more recent decades. The genre typically has the main character(s) travelling from place to place and the experience giving them a different perspective on life from that of their everyday existence. The film is about the journey rather than the destination. The time taken on the road places the traveller in a sort of vacuum. It’s a no-man’s land, situated in-between two worlds. The miles that have to be covered allow ample time for reflection such that it becomes an emotional as well as a geographical journey.
A lot of popular music, especially from America, covers much of the same territory. I have been taken on countless journeys courtesy of my radio or stereo speakers. Songs about hobos and about life on the open road. Songs about travelling but never quite getting there, or about returning home but not getting the anticipated reception. Then there are the restless songs about constant wandering or songs about escape, with the road representing freedom and the hope of a better future. If I listed all the titles, we would be here all day. Just off the top of my head I think of : “24 Hours to Tulsa” ( Gene Pitney), “Hit the Road Jack” ( Percy Mayfield), “On the Road Again” ( Canned Heat), “Route 66″ ( The Rolling Stones), ” Fast Car” ( Tracey Chapman), “Ramblin’ Man” ( The Allman Brothers) and “Me and Bobby McGhee” ( Kris Kristofferson). Then of course there is Bruce Springsteen’s most loved song ( at least by me) “Born to Run” or, on the same album: “Thunder Road” — “–roll down the window
And let the wind blow back your hair
Well the night’s busting open
These two lanes will take us anywhere.”
Sometimes it seems as if I’ve always been on the road in America, travelling the wide-open highways that are such a contrast from the often crowded roads of England. Maybe reading those books, listening to those songs and watching those road movies had a lot to do with my constant yearning to travel, ( apart from my dad being a railway- engine driver that is.) In one way or other I have been journeying through America for most of my life, despite only actually ever been there in the flesh twice. I clearly remember one night in the mid 1970’s, just after I had purchased my first pair of headphones, staying up late and unwinding by listening to Joni Mitchell’s latest offering “Hejira.” I soon left my everyday world of school- teaching and family- life to enter the alternative world of the American highway. Wikipedia tells me that the title is a transliteration of the Arabic word “Hijra”, which means “journey”. I didn’t know that at the time. What I did know was that it was a wonderfully restless album full of road- trip imagery such as: highways, small towns, motels, cafes, skies and deserts. I got sucked into that world and temporarily forgot that I was actually sitting still in a semi-detached house in north-west Sheffield. The album was largely written by Joni while on a long trip by car from Maine to California. She explained that the album has “this restless feeling throughout it. The sweet loneliness of solitary travel.” Thus I listened to lines such as :”A prisoner of the white lines of the freeway”, “I’m driving in some vehicle, I’m sitting in some café” or on the last track ” You couldn’t see these coldwater restrooms, Or this baggage overload, Westbound and rolling taking refuge in the roads.”
Rewinding nearly two decades, back to when I was a child in the very early 60’s, I was already fascinated by travel across the great expanses of the North American continent. I distinctly remember one Monday evening when my sister and I were excitedly waiting for the TV engineer to arrive and put up our ITV aerial. We already had BBC but we were now desperate to acquire the Independent Television channel because it had exciting American programmes such as “Wagon Train”. This was a popular western series about the adventures of settlers heading west in covered wagons to start new lives as farmers, ranchers or prospectors. “Wagon Train” was screened on a Monday evening so it was a race against time. In those days of only 2 channels and no recording or playback facilities, you had to catch a show when it was screened or miss it for good. (We didn’t then realise that there would be endless repeats on daytime TV at a future date.) Would the engineer get the new TV aerial up before that night’s episode? He did, thank goodness! We kids were given special permission to stay up late to see “Wagon Train even though it was a school night. It didn’t finish until 9-30pm, half an hour past our usual deadline!
“Wagon Train” which screened from 1957 to 1965 told the stories of travellers heading west in covered wagons from post Civil War Missouri to California or Oregon. It was set in the 1870s. The wagons travelled through the plains, deserts and Rocky Mountains led by the gruff, but good at heart Major Seth Adams ( Ward Bond) and guided by the dashing, buckskin-clad frontier scout Flint McCullough ( Robert Horton). For some reason, Robert Horton was one of my earliest heroes, beating even Cliff Richard into second place! I was only 10/11 at the time — that’s my excuse. The series also featured comedy turns from a grizzled old cook called Charlie B Wooster ( Frank McGrath.) Each episode concentrated on the characters on one particular wagon. The wagons were pulled by teams of horses and met many dangers on the way including: dust storms, drought, hunger, disease and attacks from bandits or “Indians.” In the latter instance the wagons would go into a defensive circle to fight the attackers off. For some of the travellers there was a happy ending, but for others there was not. It was all extremely exciting in the context of my short, sheltered life and maybe planted some early seeds that eventually resulted in me making that recent North American road trip.
In reality, the pioneers heading west had to endure much tougher conditions than those depicted on that early TV series. I found this out on my trip. We seemed to constantly criss-cross the Oregon/California Trail. First of all we visited Fort Laramie National Historic Site in Wyoming, an important staging post on the settlers’ journey, as well as being a cavalry fort and a Pony Express station. Later we came across the historic trail again as we passed through part of Idaho and stopped at the National Oregon/California Trail centre in the tiny town of Montpelier. I found out that the TV myths didn’t always match reality.
For a start most settlers purchased 4 to 6 oxen rather than horses to pull their wagons. Oxen were stronger and cheaper although a lot slower than horses. Also, they were less likely to be stolen by “Indians” or bandits. Oxen could easily feed off the prairie grasses. In fact the slowness of these beasts suited the pioneers as they invariably walked beside the wagon which was filled with their essential possessions and provisions. Many walked barefoot. Only the old and sick would get a ride. Between 1841 and 1900, over 300,000 Americans of all ages and types sold most of their possessions, purchased wagons and headed west on an epic 2000 mile journey. The journey took 5 to 6 months. The Rockies had to be crossed before the winter set in otherwise disaster loomed. Many didn’t make it. 1 in 10 died on the way — from cholera, poor sanitation, starvation, exposure or accidents. Many were buried on the trail to protect their bodies from scavenging wild animals. “Indian” attacks were fairly rare and in fact, in many cases, especially in the early days, the native Americans helped the white settlers travelling across their land.
At the Oregon/California Trail Centre there was a lovely exhibition of beautiful hand-made quilts. We learnt about the importance of quilts on the treks. What would you say the 4 main uses were? Well, first of all they kept the travellers warm. Secondly they provided privacy as they could be turned into screens. Thirdly they could be traded with the Native tribes. Lastly they were used as burial shrouds when someone perished on the trek. All of this sort of information made us feel very humbled as we re-boarded our luxury coach to be transported effortlessly on to our next comfortable hotel.
It was a great road trip. Thank you to Travelsphere, our tour guide Dean, and our driver Ching for organising it all and making it so memorable. We saw lots of stupendous scenery, met kind and interesting people and learnt heaps of fascinating history. In a way this trip joined up lots of different episodes in my life and made sense of them. All those travel books, songs and movies now got recalibrated in my mind. The experience was no longer a second hand one. I have now gained my own personal memories and photos. Like all great road trips it taught me a lot and helped to put my everyday life at home into sharper perspective. That’s what all good travel is about. It wasn’t always relaxing and it certainly wasn’t a holiday in the “resting by the pool” or the “lying on a beach” sense, but it was a truly fulfilling experience.
I got a big surprise when I arrived at Denver International Airport on a recent trip to the USA. The corridor and entrance area were decorated with large photographic portraits of Native Americans ( formerly known as Red Indians), and in the background played Native American traditional music. It reminded me of the “Sacred Spirit ” albums I used to listen to in the 90’s. It was all very confusing. Wasn’t this the same country that less than 150 years before had practised a policy of near genocide against the Native American tribes, taken over their lands and attempted to wipe out their way of life? Wasn’t this the same country that had forced the surviving Native Americans to live on reservations as if they were animals in a zoo? It was all very mysterious. Had modern Americans experienced a massive change of heart and developed a new found respect for the first inhabitants of their continent? Did they regret the atrocities and injustices of the recent past and now want to make amends?
A visit of just over 2 weeks and a bit of background reading cannot provide pat answers to these difficult questions. All I can do is throw a few observations and opinions into the mix. All I can do is raise a few points to consider.
I’ve always been interested in American history and the stories of the so-called “Wild West”. Many of them are myths of course and it is difficult trying to untangle fact from fiction. As I kid I was given a “Billy the Kid” album every Christmas. It didn’t occur to me for a long while that this publication was actually glamorising the exploits of a cold-blooded murderer. Being just a child I eagerly lapped up the exciting adventures from a time and place so different to my own. As well as cowboys, I also learnt about famous “Indian” chiefs such as Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Cochise and Geronimo. I didn’t at first think about the morality of it all. I never stopped to think why the “white men” and “red men” were fighting or about who was “right” and who was “wrong”. I just loved the adventure and the exoticism of these larger than life characters. All this was reinforced by television and the cinema. The first programme I ever saw was “The Lone Ranger”, the adventures of a masked cowboy tackling the bad guys with the help of his faithful “Indian” friend, Tonto. There followed other TV westerns such as :”The Range Rider”, “Rawhide”, “Wagon Train” and “Bonanza” to name but a few. Westerns were a very popular genre. Movie films such as “Stage Coach”, “High Noon” and “How the West Was Won” greatly reinforced this Hollywood idea of the “Wild West” and 19th century American history. The bad guys were often : bank robbers, cattle rustlers or murderers but when “Indians” appeared they were often portrayed as “baddies” too. Whooping “Indians” in fearsome war-paint would swarm down off a ridge to attack a wagon train or a stage coach, threatening the lives of innocent white men, women and children. Native Americans were depicted as wild, murderous fiends who posed a serious threat to peace and civilisation. The U.S. Cavalry was shown as a force for the good, trying to bring the “savages” to heal and restore law and order to the west.
This view of the American west persisted for a long time, until in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, revisionist historians, authors and film makers started to challenge the accepted notions. They began to look at the story from the Native American point of view. Films such a “Little Big Man ” ( based on the Thomas Berger novel), “Soldier Blue” and Kevin Costner’s “Dances With Wolves” started to present a very different picture of events and the actions of cowboys, “Indians” and cavalry soldiers. Native Americans were now depicted as victims rather than perpetrators of aggression. They all told heart-wrenching stories of atrocities and massacres directed against the native people. The Sioux (or Lakotas), Cheyenne, Apaches and the rest, were now presented as dignified people with sophisticated cultures rather than as sub-human savages. It was an important sea-change in attitude. A new perspective had emerged at last. The story of the American West, it seemed. was much more complicated than previously thought. It presented many subtle shades of grey rather than simplistic black and white. It was an emotional journey for me, leaving behind my childish notions and realising the terrible truth. I remember crying at the end of “Little Big Man” and I am not often prone to tears.
The clincher for me was reading Dee Brown’s history of the American West from the “Indian” point of view: “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” It’s a very difficult but very important read in my opinion. People have asked me why I choose to read about deeply upsetting things that have happened in the past which I can do nothing about. I know I cannot change history, but perhaps by learning about the mistakes and tragedies of the past I can make a small contribution to trying to prevent them from being repeated in the future. Also, I feel it is a sign of respect for all the people who have struggled and suffered, to learn about and acknowledge their lives. I think it’s important to remember people even though I have never met them. That’s why I feel compelled to read about the World Wars, the Holocaust, the Middle East crisis, The Cold War and so on. Lots of people seem to agree with me. Why else are the First World War battlefields and cemeteries places of “pilgrimage” for many? Why is there invariably a queue outside the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam or crowds of people wanting to see the 9/11 monument in New York? Dee Brown details in eloquent, heart-rending prose the full tragic fate of the Native American tribes — the theft of their lands, the murders and massacres, the constantly broken treaties, the death marches, the poverty and starvation, the slaughter of the buffalo ( depended upon by the plains “Indians”) the destruction of their culture and their whole way of life. It finishes with the massacre at Wounded Knee on December 29th, 1890, when a band of Minneconjou Sioux, including women and children, were gunned down by the 7th cavalry while taking part in a religious ceremony known as a ghost dance. It’s a very sobering read.
So I got to learn about and understand a much fuller picture of the history of the American West than I had gleaned from childhood comics, annuals and TV shows. It has been one of the reasons why I have been reluctant to visit modern USA although I know its present citizens cannot be held responsible for what happened in their country’s past. I remember being made to feel very uncomfortable at a concert in Manchester by Buffy St Marie around the year 1970. It was at a time when I was really getting into American popular music and was looking forward to experiencing a performance by an artist with such a thrilling voice and such powerful songs.( e.g. “The Universal Soldier.) However, many of the audience, including my girlfriend and I, ended up squirming in our seats when we were subjected to a sustained lecture on racism, prejudice, discrimination and injustice aimed at the Native Americans. I think Buffy St Marie is a Cree.
I know this story of the persecution of a minority by a more powerful majority has been repeated throughout the world and across the centuries. It is not just an American thing. The treatment of the Aborigines in Australia has been abominable and racist attitudes still persist today, I believe. Going back in time, the English have not exactly been peaceful towards the Welsh, Scots and Irish. Atrocities and injustices litter the history of the British Isles. I have just finished watching a TV history of the reign of King Edward 1 — the “Hammer of the Scots” ( and the Welsh). It didn’t make for easy viewing even though it was about events way back in medieval times. Then there are all the abominations of the British Empire, the French Empire, the earlier Spanish Empire and all the other Empires one can think of. Empire building gets across the message that “Might is Right”. It’s the politics of the school- yard bully and is sadly a common occurrence all over the world today. Tragically, when wave after wave of European settlers followed in the wake of Columbus and came to colonise the “New World”, the writing was on the wall for all the native inhabitants who had been living relatively peacefully there for many centuries.
So why the possible change of attitude? It’s easier to be magnanimous to one’s enemy after he or she has been crushed. Maybe many American are genuinely sorry for what their ancestors did. Now the Native Americans are no longer a threat to the acquisition of land and resources, their customs, art, religion and culture can be properly appreciated and respected. Was this what was happening at Denver airport? Well to a certain extent the answer is “yes”, I think. Apparently, the site of the airport was originally a native American burial ground. Therefore the Mayor of Denver met with tribal elders to gain permission for the building to go ahead. I don’t know how much choice they really had, but at least they were being respected and their opinions sought. The spirits of the dead were appeased by removing them to another specially consecrated site. The airport was built on a tepee tent design to further placate the spirits. A native American exhibition called “The Spirit of the People” has been installed at the airport. It tells the story of native Americans in the Colorado area. Tribal images and stories are displayed along with 31 large-scale photographs of contemporary American “Indians”. This is what I saw and what surprised me so much as I wended my way to the passport queue.
All through my trip through north-west and south west United States I kept asking the questions -“Are todays Native Americans or First Nation Americans treated fairly and equally?” and “Has history been re-written to tell both sides of the story of the American West and the so called Indian wars?” They are impossible questions to answer fully. But I did notice some encouraging signs that the balance is being redressed. For instance, in South Dakota, the Mount Rushmore Monument to the four white Presidents: Washington, Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Lincoln, is now being balanced by an even bigger mountain monument to chief Crazy Horse, just 17 miles away in another part of the Black Hills. The Crazy Horse monument, begun in 1948, is far from finished. When it is completed it will probably be the largest sculpture in the world. It has been created by Korczali Ziolkowski and his family. Korczali himself died in 1982 but the work has been continued by his wife ( now also deceased) and children. When finished it will show the Sioux leader astride his horse, pointing to the horizon, stating:” My lands are where my dead lie buried.” The monument was commissioned by Henry Standing Bear, a Lakota elder, who declared:” My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to now the red man has got heroes too.” The Crazy Horse centre also includes an extensive and impressive native America cultural centre and gift shop.
In fact, everywhere we travelled we came across Native American jewellery, arts and crafts for sale. Much of it is of a high quality. My wife Chris bought a coral necklace and some beautiful earrings. I bought a lovely little badger fetish from a native American crafts shop in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The native America arts and crafts were very popular with our group. But this raises another awkward question. ” Have the native American people been rehabilitated to a certain extent because they are good for tourism?” If the horrors of the past can be brushed under the carpet then the native American tribes can present an exotic and fascinating alternative to mainstream USA. Again, the question is impossible to answer but is worth a thought or two. When we visited Monument Valley in southern Utah we went on a spectacular 4×4 ride to see the huge sandstone buttes and mesas at close quarter. Our driver and guide was Mike Chee, a local Navajo “Indian.” This is because the main part of the valley is on Navajo reservation land. Tourism obviously plays a big, important part in the Navajo economy. The place was heaving with visitors, all spending dollars at the Navajo shop and restaurant as well as on the bumpy, dusty guided tours around the iconic monuments. However it was slightly sad, in my opinion, that Mike felt he had to sing us a couple of Navajo chant-like songs. It was interesting and entertaining but I think maybe his main aim was to enhance his tips. The songs had been largely stripped of their cultural context or significance and were now merely novelty entertainment for visitors. It reminded me slightly of Sitting Bull, the great Lakota Sioux leader who, in his later years was reduced to entertaining the crowds in Buffalo Bill Cody’s travelling Wild West Show. It was a long way from his warriors’ great victory over George Custer’s 7th cavalry at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in the summer of 1876.
We visited the site of that famous battle. It is now called the Little Big Horn Battlefield National Memorial in southern Montana. For a long time it had been known as the Custer Battlefield National Memorial. This was because the myth of General George Custer’s glorious and heroic Last Stand had been perpetuated by his widow, Libby, the US press, countless paintings and books and many films such as “They Died with their Boots on.” The myth was that Custer and his vastly outnumbered men fought bravely and with total discipline against a savage horde of Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho “Indians.” Custer with his long,flowing blond locks was an American hero who fought gallantly to the end against evil redskins who were threatening civilisation. What actually happened however, was that Custer and his 700 men attacked the greatest plains Indian camp in history without bothering to check out the strength of the “enemy” first. The Sioux, Cheyenne and their allies had gathered together in peace for safety and only wanted to be left alone to live their traditional nomadic, hunting lives. Obviously they fought back when the soldiers came charging into their camp intent on killing as many “Indians” as possible. The cavalry had a record of attacking native American camps, killing women, children and old people as well as warriors. when asked why the US soldiers killed little “Indian” children, a common answer was “nits grow into lice.” Custer had gained a reputation as an Indian hunter and was heavily implicated in the massacre of a large village of southern Cheyenne. Now he was attacking another “Indian” camp but had bitten off far more than he could chew. Custer himself and the soldiers under his direct command were wiped out in well under an hour. One native American witness said they were killed in about the time it would take a hungry man to eat his dinner! Other native reports tell of soldiers panicking, taking their own lives or shooting each other in suicide pacts. Another detachment of cavalry under Major Reno was heavily depleted but hung on in a desperate defensive position until rescue eventually came after the great Sioux/Cheyenne camp had moved on.
Thus a more rounded story of Little Big Horn is told these days. Both sides of the story are known. The battlefield site now has a memorial to the native Americans who died as well as the soldiers of the 7th cavalry. Red marker stones now show where Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne warriors fell, standing alongside white markers showing where cavalry soldiers perished. The book shop and exhibition also represent both sides of the story.
It is here where the tale of the battle becomes grey rather than convenient black and white. It seems native American warriors fought and died on both sides. Crow and Arikara scouts perished with Custer and his men. Their lands had been taken by the Sioux and they saw cooperating with the white man as the best way of getting it back. In fact, the battlefield site is on the present day Crow Reservation and we were shown around by a female Crow guide. The “Indian” scouts are now honoured in the memorial. So now the full, messy story is told instead of the grossly simplistic myth of “Custer’s Last Stand.” This, more than anything else I saw, persuaded me that native Americans are now being treated with more dignity and respect. It seems they are no longer officially vilified. They are no longer described as “lice”. Similar respect for the native American way of life was shown at “Tatanka” near Deadwood, a visitor’s centre owned by Kevin Costner and dedicated to the days when the plains “Indians” hunted the buffalo in peace. We were given a very interesting talk by Phil Redbird, a Lakota Sioux and we learnt a lot about a way of life which existed before the invasion of the white settlers.
I think attitudes to native America peoples have changed. By how much it is impossible to say. Myths have been busted and a new respect is being shown, at least in official circles. But is this only because the native Indians have mostly given up their old way of life and learnt the ways of the white man? Possibly the surprising display at Denver Airport wasn’t so misleading after-all. Hopefully, modern Native Americans have a better chance of making their way in life although I couldn’t help noticing that the reservation lands we passed through in Utah and Arizona looked arid and of very poor quality. I wonder what the real story is? I cannot help recalling the ironic “joke” that Mike Chee told while showing us around his Navajo land –” Question – How did the Navajo get to live in this place? Answer — They made a reservation!”
I’ve been putting off going back to America for many years, upset by its aggressive foreign policy and its seemingly rampant gun culture. Over the decades, I’ve lost count of the countries the Americans have invaded or bombed and the horrific mass shootings in their schools, malls, cinemas and any other public space one can think of.
I first visited the States in the early 90’s to take my son, Ian, to the Florida theme parks – Disneyland, Universal Studios, Sea World and the like. They were great but seemed to represent a fantasy world rather than the real America. Our experience got more authentic when we drove on the Florida Turnpike from Orlando down to Fort Lauderdale and Miami. We sampled the laid-back beach culture, the pastel coloured Art Deco hotels and the Latin-flavoured melting pot of cultures. I remember the shiny diners with the Michelle Pfeiffer style waitresses ( in my dreams) offering endless refills from their coffee pots held high. I remember the swaying palms, the blue skies, the blazing sun, the big, brown pelicans perched around the marina, the dramatic clusters of skyscapers, the tropical storms, the “Have a nice days” and the sudden change of expression when a tip failed to please. It was fascinating and highly enjoyable. Ian must have enjoyed it too for he later returned to study at Miami University as part of his American Studies degree.
However, that’s a long time ago in a pre-digital, pre-Internet age ( at least for me.) This year, 2014, I finally had the time, the money and the inclination to return over the “pond.” I felt I had to go soon before I got too old and too decrepit for long-haul flights. Of course, I’d actually been to America many times in the past decades, the America of all those Westerns, road-movies, rom-coms and film-noir on the silver screen. Then there was the America immortalised in thousands of pop, rock and blues songs that have formed much of the soundtrack of my life. America has also invaded my own country, the UK, through its malls, out of town/car orientated shopping centres, fast food chains, coffee shops and even Drive Thru’s. On top of all this is the America of Silicon valley, the Internet, social networking, smart phones and all the bewildering paraphernalia of the communications revolution. In many ways it has been as if I was in America already, the UK often being described as its 51st State. But not even all that can compare with the real thing — the real American experience. No amount of High Definition can adequately prepare one for the immensity and grandeur of the landscapes and the incredible variety of wild life.. Suddenly, it seemed incredible that I had only been once.
So it was that in September, my wife, Chris and I found ourselves on a near 10 hour flight from London to Denver, Colorado, the “Mile High City.” Faced with the myriad of attractions that such a vast country has to offer, it was a daunting task deciding where to go. The lure of New York City was almost irresistible as were the attractions of San Francisco and California on the opposite coast. Many people visit the fascinating cities and attractions of the Atlantic and Pacific seaboards, but omit the huge mass of land in between. Jonathan Raban in his travel book ” Hunting for Mr Heartbreak”, writes about the “fly-over States”. How many people visit Los Angeles, San Francisco or Seattle in the west and then at some other time: New York, Washington DC or Boston in the east, but miss out the vast continent that lies in between? Wyoming, Montana or Utah, despite their incredible natural wonders, are only worth a brief glimpse through the clouds before in-flight entertainment on the back of the seat in front re-grabs the attention.
I decided that the most compelling parts of the USA had to be: the Great Plains, the great high Deserts and the great Rocky Mountain ranges made famous in countless Hollywood westerns. I wanted to visit the America of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. I wanted to find out more about : Buffalo Bill Cody, Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and Geronimo. I yearned to see that little house on the prairie, visualise the wagon trains of the recent past trundling along the Oregon trail, witness the scenic wonders of Yellowstone Park, Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon. So it was that we did an epic road trip through: Colorado, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Idaho, Arizona and finally Nevada, starting in Denver and ending up on Las Vegas.
The experience was spectacular and memorable. If I had to sum up my impressions of North West and South West USA in one word, that word would be “BIG”. I saw big skies, big landscapes, and big buildings ( in the cities). I ate big meals and encountered a lot of big people. As a supposed writer, I know I shouldn’t be over-using one adjective. In subsequent paragraphs, please feel free to substitute : “huge”, “immense”, “vast”,” gigantic” or “enormous” whenever you feel like it. The sheer size of everything was simply awe-inspiring and is the most indelible impression left with me. No wonder many Americans don’t even own a passport. They might think — “Why travel abroad when America offers just about everything?” What they are short of, in my opinion, is history and a rich artistic culture. The USA is a very young nation and still struggles with its sense of identity. Thus there is a lot of saluting the flag and singing the national anthem. However the States offer natural wonders in abundance. The great rolling plains seem endless. The mountains are towering and formidable. We got neck ache staring up at the huge, sheer cliffs of Zion Canyon and suffered temporary vertigo gazing into the chasm of the Grand Canyon.
The American people were unstintingly friendly and gregarious. There was no hint of that aggressive stance their country often presents to the world. It was great meeting American people even though we got off to a slightly sinister start by being photographed and finger-printed by an unsmiling passport officer at Denver. Everyone else we met made up for that bad start. I’m glad I overcame my prejudices and went to see all those wonderful sights. Chris and I always felt safe — we didn’t see one gun or meet one threatening person. One gets a warped impression if one only judges a place on the TV news. Every country has its problems and contradictions, but the natural splendours and wild life I witnessed swept away any lingering doubts. I was bowled over and glad that I had at last returned to the USA.
It’s twenty minutes past midnight but the sun is still streaming through the window. In fact my neighbour has just had to pull the blind down. All my friends and relatives back in Britain will be tucked up in bed as their day is over and night has fallen. However, my day just seems to go on and on. I am travelling backwards in time, constantly chasing the sun and escaping the moon.
I’m flying westwards to Denver, Colorado. It’s another “holiday of a lifetime” that I have been lucky enough to indulge in since retirement. The plane is full of silver-haired retirees like myself. We are getting in our long-haul journeys while we can. Our watches tell us we are in the small hours, but it’s only early evening local time. A surreal situation has emerged. Our minds are still active but our bodies are weary. The long journey is messing with our internal clocks.
The inside of the aircraft cabin is dominated by the unrelenting drone of the engines. I have been trapped here for 7 hours with another near 3 hours still to go. If I allow myself to think about it, I might well have a panic attack. I instruct myself to stay calm and breathe steadily. I’m distracted by looking down on to the white Canadian clouds, momentarily recalling Joni Mitchell recalling “life’s illusions.” Every now and then I get up to flex my legs and waggle my toes to try to avoid getting a DVT. My mouth feels stale and my body very tired. I started this endless day clean-shaven and fresh, but now I sport the sandpaper cheeks of unwelcome designer stubble.
It should be the middle of the night but I’ve just been served a sandwich and a cup of tea. It’s bizarre. Now I’ve been given a scone, a small pot of cream and some jam which is squeezed out of a tiny tube. I try to eat and drink while cramped in my seat. The electronic screen in front of me says we are flying over Lake Winnipeg, Manitoba at 38,000 feet. It’s not often one gets to say that!