‘I’m pretty flexible about the New Zealand part of my trip,’ I said to the long-suffering consultant at the other end of the line. A pause. ‘There’s just one non-negotiable, though. I have to spend some time in Dunedin. And I wouldn’t mind going to Invercargill. A longer pause. The whisper of a sigh.
I have to hand it to Trailfinders; they train their staff well. By this point in the conversation Tasmin and I had been talking for more than an hour as I swithered over my itinerary for a long-dreamed-of journey to Australia and New Zealand.
I’m not an intrepid traveller. My journeys are to safe, civilised, known places. But within those confines I do have a tendency to take the path less travelled. And often, although not always, that path is surrounded by books.
Most people visiting the South Island of New Zealand will want to see Queenstown, the fjords, Christchurch, the Marlborough wineries. Me? I was in search of a school and its headmistress. The school was Columba College high above the city in Dunedin. The headmistress was Winifred McQuilkan. She was in charge of the then private girls school in the 1940s.
In the aftermath of the Second World War many countries sent food parcels to Britain, a country in the throes of rationing. The girls of Columba College were among the many who sewed up these food parcels. To help pass the time, their headmistress read aloud and eventually told her own stories, many of which were published. In 1947 the Merry trilogy (Merry Begins, Merry Again and Merry Marches On) was published by Oxford University Press under the name Clare Mallory. The books were set in the College and the characters were based on pupils of the time.
I came across these books about fifteen years ago when they were re-issued by Girls Gone By Publishers, along with other books by the author. My favourite remains Juliet Overseas, about a New Zealander who goes to England to be educated at her mother’s old school, but the Merry books were the first I read and I love them too.
So obviously I wanted to see the school (called Tremayne’s in the books) for myself. Thus Dunedin’s place in my travel plans. I was extremely fortunate to meet Tania, someone known to me only through a Facebook group, for lunch one day and she and her daughter drove me up to see the school. It was a strange experience seeing fiction come to life – and realising that the fiction was, in fact, real-life all along!
I know. You’re thinking that this is an extremely strange way to plan a journey but having something like this to hang my plans on adds to the excitement for me. I might not have gone to Dunedin otherwise (even though I’m from Edinburgh) and I’d have missed out in that case. It’s a beautiful city and luckily I went there first. I hope that I can go back one day and see more of its spectacular architecture, setting and surroundings. Invercargill, Winifred McQuilkan’s birthplace, will have to wait for that other, virus-free, time.