Last Saturday, I had to go to Bristol, England for the day. Bristol, for those outside the UK, is on England’s southwest coast, lying just south of Wales and north of Cornwall. It was also once one of the main ports for the Caribbean trade; slaves, sugar and rum all came through here. In fact, my meeting was held in a building called the Sugar House, a collection of 18th century warehouses and sugar refinery! And yes, there is another connection since once, long ago, the first great steam ships set sail from this port, along with an early passenger: the Condesa, Mercedes Merlin. Yes, the Condesa travelled from London to Bristol in 1840, spent a day or so visiting the local sites and then embarked on her great Havana journey. On the Great Western ship, also the name of the rail company operating this line.
On my own Great Western train ride back to London’s Paddington Station, I realized that I must have been re-tracing her journey from London, the same basic route. England has changed beyond recognition since 1840 but some things still have a timeless quality: the rolling green landscape with its hedgerows, sheep, horses and villages scattered throughout and Bath with its perfectly crafted regency crescents.
The funny thing about this unplanned retracing is that it was my second unconscious recreation in the past two months. In August 2010, my husband and I drove from Valencia to the Catalan Pyrenees, along the dauntingly high mountain passes bordering France and leading into that country. While not the exact same path that Mercedes Merlin took with her newborn child and the remnants of Joseph Bonaparte’s court, it was close enough. Back in August of 1812, Mercedes fled Madrid, across the burning Castillian meseta down to Valencia then after a time, continuing onto Zaragoza and crossing the Pyrenees to France. Close enough, I thought. Driving through the winding Pyrenean roads with their sheer drops and climbing down on foot from mountain top sanctuaries gave me a new respect for what the 1812 march must have been like. Of course, I was not being shot at by enemy snipers, nor shadowed by guerrilla saboteurs nor did I have to worry about my wet-nurse running out of milk because of the lack of food and water. Thank goodness for small favors; we just had to worry about following the satnav instructions!