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My travel inspiration!

Posted by Jonny Bealby 3rd March 2012
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Last week we laid my old Grandmother to rest. In her 101st year, I guess it was the blessing everyone, including Gran, thought it was. But I have to say I found it very sad. Funerals always make you think about your own mortality, and they remind you of other much-loved companions that have left this mortal stage. But also I was sad for losing her, my Grandmother, who played an important part in my life.

Born in 1911, ten years after the death of Queen Victoria, with Loyd George sitting in Number 10, and Manchester United champions of the first division (no change there then) her life passed through probably the most dramatic century the world has ever seen, and she played her part within it. In 1911 there were few car, few telephones and trains travelled at little over 30mph. When she died, well, you don't need me to spell it out!

Gran, or Nan as she was generally known to us, grew up in the Fens to a conservative middle-class background, went to school in Cambridge, before attending finishing school in Switzerland. When I went to see her in her nursing home a couple of years back, she recounted a rather sad and innocent story I'd never heard before about while on this journey falling in love with a local boy named Claud. The union was never consummated, in any sense other than holding hands, but for the 17-year-old girl (who would later endure a painful, and ultimately unsuccessful, marriage) this brief encounter seemed to remain the great love story of her life.

Returning to England she met my grandfather, a surgeon in the British army, whom she married in 1936, whereupon they were immediately posted to India. Although the relationship was doomed from early on (my Grandfather was something of a philanderer) this turned out to be my Gran's great adventure, and set in her an indomitable traveller's spirit, that was at least partially responsible for my own wandering ways.

It was in India, in Bangalore to be exact, that she gave birth to my mother in 1938 and my uncle Martin, two years later. Shortly after this my grandfather was posted to Mesopotamia - before eventually taking part in the D-Day landings and the march on Berlin - leaving my Gran alone to look after two young children for the duration of the war. In 1942, with fear of Japanese invasion, they were evacuated back to England on a dangerous 8 week journey round the Cape, living in constant fear of U-Boat attack. When they reached Liverpool, they were billeted to the Astoria Hotel, where they endured their first taste of war time Britain when the city came under a massive air raid... Gran refused to decamp to the basement shelter, but along with 2 other families, sang songs in their bedroom instead.

With little money, the strain of finding lodgings among friends and relatives, the on-going war, and a husband who had now officially left her for another woman (and was filing for divorce), Gran was taken ill with hepatitis almost died. As low as she was, both physically and mentally - for the most part earning a crust housing and feeding students from a rented house in a bombed out London street - this was the toughest part of her life. But the fighter in her rallied, brought her back to health, and two years later she was given £1,000 by her old uncle Will to buy a small cottage in Cambridgeshire... and things looked up. Although there were many more trials and tribulations to endure along the way, Gran developed a great strength that was to stay with her the rest of her life. She never spent a penny of the £7 a month alimony given to her by her ex-husband but worked her entire life to support herself and her family until well into her 80s.

In 1965 she moved into another cottage 2 miles from where her daughter, Sue, was now living with her husband and young family, which included me. She lived here, a huge part in all our lives, until failing eye sight forced her into a retirement home in 2007. She was 96.

That first wanderlust she'd experienced in India during the twilight years of the Raj, stayed with Gran for the rest of her life. She travelled all over the world, to see relatives and friends in places as far afield as Saudi Arabia and Southern Africa, the States and Middle East. When I was a small boy she would often put me on her lap and tell me tales of elephants and their mahouts, of being taken to local bazaar in a horse-drawn tongo, and getting help with the children from a smiling ayah. She'd show me photos of their homes in Cochin and Bangalore and recount stories of tiger safaris. Wide-eyed and captivated I'd sit and listen to her stories of these exotic lands with wonder and awe.

It was therefore fitting that years later the roles would be reversed as sitting in her chair, she'd listen just as riveted to her grandson telling her tales of his adventures own around the world. She loved to hear stories of Africa - a continent she'd travelled to many times - but it was always my talk of India that really made her smile.

We are what we are because of those that touch our own lives; those that have the ability to impress us with their tales, with their character and ultimately with their spirit... I am who I am, and have done what I’ve done, at least in part because of my Gran.

RIP… You shall be sorely missed!

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