Heathrow airport is one of the busiest in the world. It actually hosts more international passengers than any other. Walking through one of its terminals is to expose oneself to more languages, ethnic backgrounds and clothing choices than almost anywhere else on earth. It is a true “melting pot”. At no other time is this more evident than early on a weekday morning when ticket lines bloat with commuters, backpackers, and business people. The one thing that ties this disparate group of travelers together is that they all want to be somewhere else. Which is ironic when you consider how important queuing is in British society. Seriously, people in England will queue for anything, even an ATM that is out of order, “what’s all this then? A queue! Must be something jolly good, what, what?” It was into this fervent, seething state of affairs that I deposited myself, overseas for the first time, desperately homesick and spectacularly poor. I had budgeted carefully, planning to possess about a thousand dollars upon entering Britain. But several days of bad financial choices (mainly excessive drinking) in New York had depleted my funds to below $300, or about enough to buy an extra value meal at a London Burger King. In fact it was only timely intervention from my mother in Australia that allowed me to arrive at all. In those days (these days as well for all I know) Great Britain required that all young Australians prove that they had the financial resources to support themselves lest they become a drain on the limey welfare system. This rule was easily sidestepped by my mother depositing the required funds into my bank account and then faxing me an account balance sheet. Arriving at the immigration official’s desk I handed him the sheet that read like an illegal Swiss bank account – day one; zero balance, day two; four thousand dollars. Thanks Mum!
Three hours was all it took for me to catch the tube into central London, find an incredibly cheap hostel on Oxford Street, dump my backpack and head back out into a brilliant sunny day, and this was autumn weather! Where does a young Australian go upon first arriving in London? Well I’m not sure about all Ozzie youth on walkabout but I quickly found myself in St. James’s Park looking at Buckingham Palace and exclaiming, “Golly that’s Bucking-huge.” It was here on this bench that I had what might possibly have been the event that established my travel philosophy for years to come. “What the hell are ye doin’ laddie?” said a gravelly voice from beyond the cheap sightseeing map that I was holding up in front of my face.
“Um, looking for the way to Westminster Abbey,” I said as I lowered my map to be greeted by the vision of a very large, red-faced man. He was something to behold, let me tell you, wearing a wrinkled checked suit jacket and pants and the sort of beret type cap that only old Scottish men can ever pull off and be serious about. He also wore a resplendent mustache that dropped down over his mouth that made him look like a walrus in clothes.
“A’ll show ye where it is laddie,” he boomed as he set forth across a grassy field, “A’m on my way in tha’ direction anyhoo.” He must have sensed my caution as he quickly added, “Ah don’t want te feck ya, if that’s what ye worried aboot.” My fears temporally abated, I cautiously followed thinking that this might be a story one day worth retelling.
As we walked I learned that my new friend was a Staff Sergeant in Her Majesty’s armed forces and was in town for a military reunion of sorts. The previous evening he and several of his buddies had had a “wee nip” and wound up deliriously intoxicated. He was out and about this fine morning looking for a little “hair of the dog” but as it was another couple of hours until the pubs opened up he had figured on a wander through the park, until he had happened upon me. “Time to fuck with this young whippersnapper,” he probably thought. After showing me the Abbey, Houses of Parliament, Big Ben and a good deal of the south side of the Thames, where I again feared for the “fecking” that he has promised not to give me, I found myself in my first English pub. Here my new friend regaled me with stories of the Falkland’s war, his life in the military and his role as a Staff Sergeant at Edinburgh Castle! We ended the day meeting up with his buddies and getting gloriously inebriated again in a wonderful establishment called “The Green Man”.
The Staff Sergeant proved to be a man of high repute and had confirmed for me that sights, attractions, and locations of note are secondary matters to the traveler wanting to get the most out of an international experience. It is with locals, often very colorful locals, that one’s true international education takes place. For me this means that I have never visited the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, but I have sat on the steps of Sacré Coeur, chatted with locals in very bad French, and listened to a busker sing folk songs while the sun sets beyond the Parisian skyline. To me, one has value and the other is what tourists in white shorts, bermuda shirts and bum bags do.
Some months later I found myself in Edinburgh, walking up the famed royal mile towards Edinburgh Castle. I was on my way to visit the Staff Sergeant, for it was he who pulled the cord that fired the 1 o’clock gun each day. Apparently this gun, and its firing, is something of great importance to the Scots… along with really good Whiskey. Edinburgh really is the most spectacular city. The castle sits atop a huge rocky outcrop, looking the very picture of what a castle should look like. The Royal Mile connects the castle directly to Holyrood Palace and is lined with stunning architecture mostly from the 17th Century. The best time to visit “The Mile” is early in the morning before the tourist shops open and the footpaths become clogged with pedestrians. The Staff Sergeant was his usual garrulous self (though without the intoxication) and guided me around the castle, then fired the gun at 1 o’clock, which was awesome! The highlight, for me, was sitting in St. Margaret’s chapel. This building is over 860 years old and I found myself overwhelmed with the history that had occurred within its walls. The Staff Sergeant had one last surprise in store for me. Knowing that I didn’t have much in the way of funds he recommended that I visit, and climb, the strange outcropping that stood nearby called Arthur’s Seat. Like the hill on which the castle stood, this mount was formed due to erosion around an extinct volcano that had become dormant some millions of years ago. Amazingly this mountain stood only about a mile East of the castle proper. After walking to the bottom and then climbing the steep rocky side of “the seat” I was afforded a dramatic view of the castle, Royal Mile and Holyrood Palace. I sat there for some time thinking about my good fortune in meeting the Staff Sergeant. Had I not followed him through St. James Park – admittedly fearing a right royal “fecking”, I would have never found myself on this hill, on the other side of the world, looking out at this amazing panoramic view. That is what traveling is all about really, at least for me. Thanks Staff Sergeant, you are a gentleman and a scholar.
Staff Sergeant Thomas McKay was the longest serving gunner at Edinburgh Castle. His dedication to the tradition of the one o’clock gun led to the establishment of a permanent exhibition on Edinburgh’s time signals at the Castle. He died in 2005.