Getting to Know the Canon

Pamella Laird

© Copyright 2022 by Pamella Laird

Photo by Josè Maria Sava on Unsplash
 Photo by Josè Maria Sava on Unsplash

Way back in the Fifties, it was commonplace to hitchhike when on a working holiday. In our case, my nurse friend Zala and I were in England for more than two years, far from our native New Zealand.

We are totally different personalities and it worked perfectly, always being there for one another. Zala is thoughtful and quiet, with a lovely slanted sense of humour. I, on the other hand, am impulsive, can be unthinking and am probably a bit on the bouncy side. Zala had much to contend with.

We had sold our bicycles after a memorable 2,500-mile adventure the previous summer, and decided this year to try ‘hitching’. In three weeks, we aimed to cover the South Coast right along to Land’s End then back to our hospital world in London. This venture was to begin after spending several days in Canterbury enjoying the fabulous Cathedral and enchanting little side streets and alleyways.

On the following days of our tour, we appreciated the generosity of several kind motorists and the interesting little ports they showed us, along with local information they were happy to pass on. This included the at times amusing English Channel history of smuggling rum, gin and tobacco and the hiding of it in unlikely places such as vicarages. Our travels went extremely well for the whole of our journey. Various kindly working men, such as three different truckies and, separately, two fine local gentlemen who picked us up from the side of the road and carried us along the South Coast, in stages, until we were not too far from Portsmouth.

We absorbed many a story of local history, such as the small town of Battle being the scene in 1066 of William the Conqueror’s triumphant confrontation with King Harold at the Battle of Hastings. Among our friendly drivers was a young man of about 22 who, in an open-topped sports car, insisted on taking us home to meet his grandmother. A charming lady who lived in a mansion in the middle of park-like grounds, she appeared to be quite used to strangers picked up from the roadside being brought to meet her.

Even now, I remember how we enjoyed chatting with our driving angels, who all wanted to know who we were, where we had come from, what we had seen, and what were our future travel plans. I think, that because it was relatively soon after the war, we were something of a novelty and perhaps people assumed we were the daughters of wealthy farmers. This was not the case at all: we worked and saved hard for our sea passage to the UK.

One day, after a stop for a cup of tea, we were back on the road. Zala grew increasingly frustrated by the lack of response to her ever-hopeful ‘thumb’. Finally, she said firmly, ‘I’m sure it’s your turn now.’ Of course it was, and I happily obliged.

With my thumb held high, around the corner purred a highly polished Rolls-Royce, clearly chauffeur-driven. In my wildest dreams I would never have intentionally hailed a Rolls-Royce, but this one had been nowhere in sight. Who could possibly be chauffeur-driven in a Rolls? Could it be royalty, for whom we were certainly not dressed, nor frankly, prepared? Adding to my misgivings, this massive vehicle pulled soundlessly to a stop beside us and a jumbo passenger door swung open.

A gentleman in full religious regalia and a huge smile invited us to step inside. We paused for a millisecond then scrambled in—the chauffeur attended to our backpacks—to be seated beside the wondrous luxury of an immaculate, bespoke cocktail cabinet. After our champion had indicated to the driver that he could drive on, the reverend gentleman gave us his name and title: “I am a Canon, believe it or not.” In those days, especially in England, the clerical dog collar represented a social status that could be daunting for many. He told us he’d “been up to London to bury his aunt” which explained the regalia.

Our new friend and ‘picker-up of strays on the road’ was a big, wide-smiling, comfortable uncle sort of person, one with whom you immediately felt at ease. He appeared to be in his mid-fifties and told us he was delighted to have company for his return to Portsmouth.

It was our turn for introductions and explanations. On learning that we were New Zealanders, he told us that one of his more amusing and likeable curates had been a Kiwi and he gave the name of someone I knew well. I agreed, saying, “Indeed, he is something of a comic; so much so he is known throughout New Zealand for his weekly programme on our national radio.” This curate later become a vicar of my late grandfather’s church.

This exchange set us on a merry path, which included a ‘Cook’s Tour’ of the coastline so we could enjoy a view of The Isle of Wight and the Duke of Norfolk’s castle of Arundel. Later, he guided us through the remarkable interior of Chichester Cathedral and its almost 1,000-year history.

The Reverend Canon was undoubtedly ‘a man of the people’ and I’m sure his congregations would have thoroughly enjoyed his role in their churches. It was obvious from his friendly, spontaneous manner that he would have been a much-loved man whatever his calling.

He told us of his adventures in the Swiss Alps during his climbing days, invariably with men whose names, even now, are famous throughout the world. One of those intrepid friends died in pursuit of his risky endeavours.

Every summer the Reverend took with him a group of thirty or so to Switzerland to soak up the mountain atmosphere. In the course of our conversation, he invited us to join the next party of parishioners he would be escorting in August. Sadly, as we had already made arrangements to join four others to tour Europe at that time, we had to politely decline. However, he told us the hotel he would be booked into and the dates they would be there. Around five in the evening he set us down not far from a Youth Hostel (in those days hostels did not permit car travellers), and with many smiles, we farewelled our kindly host and his awesome mode of transport.

Time went by and we joined four girls in an old London taxi to do a fairly comprehensive tour of Europe. We went as far north as Norway and as far south as Spain, enjoying fantastic weather. In the middle of our Grand Tour, we spent two days in Territet on Lake Geneva and were astonished to discover that our Canon’s hotel was right next door to our auberge.

However briefly, it was indeed good to see a friendly face. Again, despite his busy schedule, he made us welcome and gave us little maps of places to see and eat, and all too soon we said goodbye.

Fast-forward nearly four months and we were back in London, where one of us had the excellent idea of a week’s walk along the banks of the Thames. Not the length of the Thames, just a few days making use of nearby Youth Hostels and lunching at charming riverside pubs. The summer weather was spectacular, so much so we developed blistered feet and were grateful when the occasional River boatie offered us a lift to the next lock or often even further. There were many questions and answers on these mini cruises as clearly we were not Brits.

Leaving Henley, we continued along the serene, tree-lined banks. It was a joy to watch boats of all sizes and colours, from launches to canoes and tiny rowboats, all out to enjoy the beautiful day.

Our early morning start meant long grass, heavy with dew, drooping over the towpath (or pathway) which made walking an uncomfortable, wetting experience. Not walking on the path was even worse. On an open stretch of river, a precision rowing eight came alongside. We soon realised their coach was cycling towards us on our footpath. Cheekily I said to Zala, “I’m not walking in the wet grass for him”, so we held our course.

To everyone’s astonishment, the man on the bicycle abruptly abandoned his bullhorn and cycle and ran towards us, wrapping his arms around us both at once. None other than our Reverend Canon! By this time the incredulous crew were falling about laughing, half of them almost in the water. Remember, we were in the presence of a highly respected ‘man of the cloth’!

To say we were amazed is an understatement, and I think our Canon couldn’t believe it either. Such a coincidence to think that in coaching his old Oxford College crew on the River Thames, we had once more fetched up together!

As you would imagine, there was a lot of laughter and chatter and, of course, as a serious coach with an obligation to hopefully train the next winners of the Henley Boat Race, we couldn’t talk to him for long.

The Canon’s parting words as he turned to go: “So good to see you again, girls, but have you thought how I’ll explain this to my crew?”

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