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Musings from a history hunter abroad

After touring England, France and Belgium, Michael Gates ‘bumping into history’ everywhere he turned
Bodiam Castle, a National Trust site in Sussex, England, is a popular visitor destination complete with moat, gift shop, restaurant and tea room. Will the Yukon have saved its heritage for visitors to enjoy three hundred years from now? (Michael Gates/Yukon News)

It’s great to be home after a month visiting family and touring England, France and Belgium. I’m still struggling with jet lag after a marathon 30 hours en route to Whitehorse.

I reflect back on the contrasts between my beloved Yukon and the old countries so far away. First, in England, there was the traffic. Forget about traveling on the opposite side of the road; that’s minor in comparison with some of the other features — the dense population and narrow streets.

And cars — so many cars, that if they all decided to drive at once, there would be absolute gridlock on the biways of the nation. If they all decided to park at the same time, it would lead to a bizarre game of musical chairs, with some people driving around endlessly looking for a parking space. The solution to traffic congestion seems to be traffic circles, or roundabouts, as they are called there. These are an ingenious way to resolve traffic congestion at intersections.

And during our brief sojourn on continental Europe, my wife Kathy and I noted the density of villages everywhere, and bossy waiters, and unisex washrooms (excuse me, madame, while I step up to the urinal!). We managed with English, but I think it would take a while to adjust to the continental social practices.

We met people who, learning we are from Canada, would ask us about snow. Yes, I assured them, the snow does melt for a couple of weeks in the summer, if only so that we can remove the winter’s accumulation of dog poop! Unlike the Yukon, where communities are far apart, traveling through the English countryside, there is another little village every mile or so, with their rural charm, narrow streets and local pubs.

But more noteworthy for a history hunter, I kept bumping into history everywhere I turned. Many of the places we visited go back hundreds of years, and if you dig underneath the surface, you will find that they often go back thousands of years more.

My brother-in-law Dennis lives in Braunston, Northamptonshire, a small village which lies at the intersection of four major canals. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, these watercourses played an important part in the industrial development of the nation. We rented a 21 metre narrow canal boat and spent a few days exploring one of the canals, stopping several times to crank open a lock by hand, just as they did 150 years ago.

We did not see Westminster Cathedral this time. Instead, we visited St. Peter, Wolfhamcote. Not far from Braunston, the derelict church is hidden in a farmer’s field. It is not in the standard guide books of places to visit, yet it has been preserved with the help of a national body, The Churches Conservation Trust, maintained for the benefit of this and future generations.

We did not get to see Stonehenge, on Salisbury Plain, but we did get to see the Rollright Stones, a Neolithic stone circle perched on a hilltop on the Oxfordshire/Warwickshire boundary. It is part of a cluster of ancient features and archaeological remains, some of which date back 5,000 years. It seems to be like this everywhere you turn in Jolly Olde England.

Not so obscure are some of the attractions that are preserved and maintained by the National Trust. Established in 1895, to care for historic properties and areas of beautiful countryside, it has for more than 120 years, acquired and preserved buildings and natural places all over Britain. I can attest to the thousands of people visiting these places when we went to see them. Each has its own unique history, displays, historical publications, gift shops, and restaurants.

It seemed as though there was another castle every time we turned around. In 1980, my wife Kathy and I visited Arundel castle; in 2002, we took our daughter, Megan to see Warwick and Chillingham Castles. We even booked a room in one wing of the latter, which was said to be the most haunted castle in England. On their short visit this summer, Megan and her partner Richard took in an old castle, while we visited Bodiam Castle, a National Trust property in Sussex. Bodiam comes complete with its own moat. It is a ruin that hasn’t been lived in for years.

It was surprising how many connections we found to Canada during our travels. Kathy visited Stowe, a National Trust site near the village where she grew up. An impressive obelisk commemorating Major-General James Wolfe is located on the grounds of the estate. Wolfe was the general who was killed leading his men to victory at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, which resulted in the capture of Quebec City by the British in 1759.

One of Kathy’s ancestors was born in Quebec City at the beginning of the 19th century while her father was serving in the British army that was stationed there at the time.

Visiting a museum in Hastings, Sussex, where England fell to William the Conqueror in 1066, I came across an exhibit to a Canadian icon who inspired me when I was a young man: Grey Owl. Grey Owl was actually an Englishman, Archie Belaney, who grew up in Hastings, but made his fame in Canada as a naturalist and champion of conservation.

Sheffield Park, a landscape Garden of Eden in Sussex, housed Canadian soldiers in clusters of Nissen huts during World War II, prior to the D-Day landing in Normandy. Witley and Milford Commons, located in East Surrey, is another National Trust property which features heathland, in a natural setting amidst a web of nature trails. In a cemetery along the northern edge of the property lie the remains of two Yukoners who died in service during the First World War.

Our visit taught us that Britain is filled with history, both monumental and humble. Hidden amidst these features, we found connections to Canadian and even Yukon history.

Upon returning home, I ponder what I saw and experienced during our month away from home. I wonder: in 300 years’ time, will Yukoners have cared enough about our history to have saved historical buildings, cultural landscapes, artifacts and stories for future generations to enjoy? I certainly hope so.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, From the Klondike to Berlin, was shortlisted for a national book award. You can contact him at