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)

Musings from a history hunter abroad

After touring England, France and Belgium, Michael Gates ‘bumping into history’ everywhere he turned

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

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Diane McLeod-McKay, Yukon’s Ombudsman and information and privacy commissioner, filed a petition on Dec. 11 after her office was barred from accessing documents related to a child and family services case. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Yukon government rejects Ombudsman requests for documentation filed to Supreme Court

Diane McLeod-McKay filed a petition on Dec. 11 after requests for documents were barred

Buffalo Sabres center Dylan Cozens, left, celebrates his first NHL goal with defenceman Rasmus Ristolainen during the second period of a game against the Washington Capitals on Jan. 22 in Washington. (Nick Wass/AP)
Cozens notches first NHL goal in loss to Capitals

The Yukoner potted his first tally at 10:43 of the second period on Jan. 22

Rodney and Ekaterina Baker in an undated photo from social media. The couple has been ticketed and charged under the Yukon’s <em>Civil Emergency Measures Act</em> for breaking isolation requirements in order to sneak into a vaccine clinic and receive Moderna vaccine doses in Beaver Creek. (Facebook/Submitted)
Former CEO of Great Canadian Gaming, actress charged after flying to Beaver Creek for COVID-19 vaccine

Rod Baker and Ekaterina Baker were charged with two CEMA violations each

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: Are they coming?

One of COVID-19’s big economic questions is whether it will prompt a… Continue reading

Yukon MP Larry Bagnell, along with Yukon health and education delegates, announce a new medical research initiative via a Zoom conference on Jan. 21. (Screen shot)
New medical research unit at Yukon University launched

The SPOR SUPPORT Unit will implement patient-first research practices

The bus stop at the corner of Industrial and Jasper Road in Whitehorse on Jan. 25. The stop will be moved approximately 80 metres closer to Quartz Road. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
UPDATED: Industrial Road bus stop to be relocated

The city has postponed the move indefinitely

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police detachment in Faro photgraphed in 2016. Faro will receive a new RCMP detachment in 2022, replacing the decades-old building currently accommodating officers. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
Faro RCMP tagged for new detachment

Faro will receive a new RCMP detachment in 2022, replacing the decades-old… Continue reading

In a Jan. 18 announcement, the Yukon government said the shingles vaccine is now being publicly funded for Yukoners between age 65 and 70, while the HPV vaccine program has been expanded to all Yukoners up to and including age 26. (
Changes made to shingles, HPV vaccine programs

Pharmacists in the Yukon can now provide the shingles vaccine and the… Continue reading

Parking attendant Const. Ouellet puts a parking ticket on the windshield of a vehicle in downtown Whitehorse on Dec. 6, 2018. The City of Whitehorse is hoping to write of nearly $300,000 in outstanding fees, bylaw fines and court fees, $20,225 of which is attributed to parking fines issued to non-Yukon license plates. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
City of Whitehorse could write off nearly $300,000

The City of Whitehorse could write off $294,345 in outstanding fees, bylaw… Continue reading

Grants available to address gender-based violence

Organizations could receive up to $200,000

In this illustration, artist-journalist Charles Fripp reveals the human side of tragedy on the Stikine trail to the Klondike in 1898. A man chases his partner around the tent with an axe, while a third man follows, attempting to intervene. (The Daily Graphic/July 27, 1898)
History Hunter: Charles Fripp — gold rush artist

The Alaskan coastal town of Wrangell was ill-equipped for the tide of… Continue reading

A man walks passed the polling place sign at city hall in Whitehorse on Oct. 18, 2018. While Whitehorse Mayor Dan Curtis is now setting his sights on the upcoming territorial election, other members of council are still pondering their election plans for the coming year. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Councillors undecided on election plans

Municipal vote set for Oct. 21

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decicions made by Whitehorse city council this week.

Most Read