Now is the time to delve through old photos and reminisce on our travels

Paul Miles
·7 min read
Who needs faraway lands when, as L.P Hartley wrote, ‘the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there’?  - Getty
Who needs faraway lands when, as L.P Hartley wrote, ‘the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there’? - Getty

With so many holidays postponed or cancelled, there’s one travel corridor that is guaranteed to remain open: a trip down memory lane. Perhaps now is the time to sort through all those slides and prints from decades of family holidays and remind yourself what travel was like aeons ago, not just pre-Covid but before mobile phones and the internet? After all, who needs faraway lands when, as L.P Hartley wrote, ‘the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there’?

If the author of ‘The Go-between’ is right, then we all have a foreign country – or several – ripe for a visit, lurking in cobwebby corners.

I’ve been helping my father clear out over 50 years’ of clutter from his loft, much of it boxes and boxes of slides (mounted 35mm transparencies). There were even boxes of his father’s slides, dating back to the 1950s and silvery-shadowed glass plates from previous generations. Thankfully, my father – a former professional photographer – has a portable light box and a rather ancient viewing loupe meaning that I haven’t had to project the slides onto a wall to examine them.

For days on end, I’ve hunched over a glowing briefcase with a brass magnifier pressed to my eye, peering at little plastic rectangles of colour, trying to work out if any of the people in the shots are significant. I’ve rescued dozens of family photos that I’d never come across before, pictures of my mother and father in their beautiful youth, my sister and I in natty little dogtooth duffle coats, of laughing and gurning cousins, aunts and uncles. Occasionally I’ve saved a picture from the bin purely for its vintage beauty such as a shot of holidaymakers boarding a ship in the Highlands, dated 1959.

The most noticeable difference between now and then is the literal fabric of society. Everyone seems to wear wool of some kind: knitted jerseys, worsted dresses, flannel trousers, tweed jackets, felt hats, gaberdine overcoats. Even that lexicon of yesteryear fashion’s warp and weft sounds archaic now. Although by the 1950s, man-made fabrics such as nylon had been around for decades, it seems their impact on our sartorial style was limited to the barely visible; to stockings and undergarments and the occasional see-through plastic rain scarf. The days of prosaic fleeces and Gore-tex jackets are yet to come. The crowd queuing to embark and those already seated on the wooden seats on deck look, by today’s standards, as if they’re dressed for a wedding.

Few people are burdened with belongings, perhaps a pair of binoculars on a leather strap or a camera in a brown leather box. Meanwhile, the cargo freight being loaded into the hold is in wooden and wicker containers, delivered on wooden barrows. Today such cargo would be in polystyrene and plastic crates delivered by fork-lift truck; and not all done within a few feet of queuing foot passengers. 

A well dressed crowd queuing to embark - Paul Miles
A well dressed crowd queuing to embark - Paul Miles

Changing attitudes to ‘health and safety’ are an easy target for nostalgic reminiscing. Here’s another photo among my grandfather’s 1959 slides. He’s crossing a river gorge in a wooden box the size of a tea-chest that he propels across the rocky chasm thanks to a pulley system of steel cables and a rope. ‘They do things differently’ indeed. Do such thrills still exist in Britain? Where was this one? The slide is simply captioned ‘Scotland 1959’. The river crossing must have been near a road as a chrome car headlamp is just visible in the foreground. 

Somewhere in Scotland - Paul Miles
Somewhere in Scotland - Paul Miles

There’s another picture from a later decade of a double-decker omnibus with brown bears scratching at the windows. ‘Loch Lomond bear park’ is emblazoned on the bus’s side. It appears that Scotland once had its own version of Longleat but with bears instead of lions. Our attitude towards animals is, thankfully, improving over the decades. Among my slides of a 1978 road trip across the USA, are ones of balancing elephants and tigers leaping through flaming hoops, all in the name of entertainment.  

‘Loch Lomond bear park’ - Paul Miles
‘Loch Lomond bear park’ - Paul Miles

When we were happily snapping with our Voigtlanders and Pentaxes, few of those in our viewfinders would have given much thought to the fact that in the click of a shutter, the alchemy of light and chemicals would capture their likeness and preserve it agelessly through time until long after their deaths. Unlike now, photography was not an everyday pastime. In one of my grandfather’s 1959 pictures of Edinburgh Castle, a photographer stands with a large-format camera on a tripod awaiting holidaymakers who might wish to pay for a precious memento of their visit. I wonder how many of our millions of digital images we snap daily will be looked at more than once let alone survive for generations? Technology on which to view them will be superseded or memory cards lost and corrupted.

But thousands of analog images have proven to be a treasure trove. I’ve also found long-forgotten pictures of myself. There I am at an annual boys’ camp in the Wye Valley run by my grandfather, canvas tents all in a row, peeling potatoes around a pit. There’s me in 1978 as a chubby-cheeked teen on the Staten Island Ferry, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in the distance. Boats are often the setting for my travel pictures it seems. There I am in the 1980s, sitting on the top deck of a river ferry on the Peruvian Amazon. This was no boutique cruise ship but quotidian public transport for those who live in this watery, roadless region. With some German travellers, I voyaged for days along the river, swinging in my hammock that I’d slung on deck along with hundreds of other passengers and their interesting cargo. Below my stripy sailor’s bed were squealing pigs, jungle beasts and a chicken tethered to a tortoise. We human passengers ate gruel served from a huge cauldron. We sat on deck, taking in the immense wideness of the muddy waterway and huge skies of castling clouds.

The author (left) on his travels - Paul Miles
The author (left) on his travels - Paul Miles

There’s me on another ship, this one in the Solomon Islands, in the 1990s, travelling from the capital, Honiara, to Western Province and Marovo Lagoon. It was an overnight journey I undertook several times during five years living in those Pacific islands. In my – perhaps selective – memory, that voyage was always a joy. We cruised past palm and wood houses on stilts over the turquoise waters of the 100km long lagoon, boys fishing from dug-out canoes, a backdrop of coconut trees and white sand beaches. At tiny ports, friendly islanders would embark, sometimes with sacks of copra or betel nuts. Space was at a premium. Once I spent the night trying to sleep in one of the lifeboats, suspended below a starry southern sky. As we rode the gentle swell, fellow passengers ate food they’d brought with them, fish and tapioca pudding cooked in ovens of hot stones and wrapped in banana leaves.

"Boats are often the setting for my travel pictures, it seems" - Paul Miles
"Boats are often the setting for my travel pictures, it seems" - Paul Miles

Sometimes the past is literally a foreign country where doing things differently is part of the joy. For most of us, it is also the time before we’ve experienced serious illness or death of loved ones. It has a prelapsarian innocence and, with that, a slowness. No wonder those Pacific islands are etched in my memory as a kind of paradise. Although I was in my 30s, I’d never noticed that the sun does sometimes project cartoon-like sunbeams through the sky nor had I seen the moon rise.

A new calendar is traditionally a period for reflection, usually just back over the previous 12 months – but perhaps we’ve had enough of 2020? Now more than ever it seems appropriate to reminisce and rejoice, to sift through old photos; to travel from the comfort of our favourite armchair to the past: to a foreign country where no ticket or passport is necessary.