There have been interesting goings-on, with Prince Harry and his wife taking a step back from life as members of the Royal Family. This after spending a relatively peaceful few weeks in our general neighbourhood on southern Vancouver Island. It seems that they had been here for at least a few weeks before anyone noticed. Then someone bumped into them on Horth Hill, just the two of them out for a hike. Someone else in a Sidney bookstore thought Harry looked vaguely familiar but couldn't quite place the face. Pierre Koffel, the eccentric owner of the superb Deep Cove Chalet restaurant turned them down because he didn't want the hassle of the security.
So, bit by little bit, the locals found out they were here and... left them alone. The BBC turned up, and so did a few reporters and photographers from the British tabloids, but as far as I know they didn't get a lot of help from the local residents. One small story involved Miles Arsenault, who runs a small boat charter service. He was offered a lucrative booking from people from New York and Japan who said they were film-makers. He turned them down when he discovered they wanted to shoot around the rural waterfront where Harry and Meghan were staying. Arsenault could have used the money, but he said he'd rather leave them with the privacy they were looking for: 'Canadians and... the islanders respect the privacy of others, and would not feel good about taking them [the paparazzi] out to take pictures of the royals'. It's like that here; in many ways how things used to be when the world was a gentler place.
Bob Hope used to come often to Victoria. He could spend a month or two up here most years, living the quiet life, away from the media scrutiny and the attentions he could never escape from fans in the United States. Hope said he liked coming up here because he could walk the streets and no-one would ever bother him. People knew who he was, he said, but they left him alone. He would take suite 330 in the Empress Hotel on Victoria's downtown waterfront, and play bridge in the evenings with Louis Finamore, the hotel's manager. An avid golfer, Hope liked the fact that you can play golf virtually any day of the year here; that it rarely snows even in midwinter. (Although this week has given the lie to that. A once-in-20-years' snowfall exhausted the city's snow removal budget in the first 10 minutes.)
John Wayne used to come up here in his converted minesweeper. We'd see it moored in the Inner Harbour, and hear of Wayne's familiar, rolling gait making its way up Government Street. Bing Crosby sang a song about the Black Ball Ferry which still crosses the Straits of Juan de Fuca between Victoria and Port Angeles in Washington State to the south of us. Bing said he liked coming here because he didn't have to wear his toupee. People here didn't care.
Richard Gere, Shirley Temple, Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchhill, Princess Margaret – just a few of Victoria's regular visitors. On one summer day in the mid-1980s, I almost literally bumped into the Queen on Government Street. Twice. There must have been security around, but it wasn't overbearing and I didn't notice it.
John Travolta upset the neighbours near the Sooke Harbour House a few years ago by landing a helicopter in the car park. Katherine Hepburn would come up here to see her friend, the artist Mfanwy Pavelich. Pavelich painted a wonderful portrait and made several brilliant character sketches of Hepburn, who would stay at the Pavelich home, not far from where Harry and Meghan spent Christmas and New Year.
When I'm back in Scotland I'm often asked about the climate here, especially the winters. 'Must be cold. Parkas and snowshoes; that sort of thing?' People in the UK tend to think of Canada in terms of Helsinki, or Leningrad. No-one believes it when I tell them that, at 48.4 degrees north, Victoria's latitude puts us well south of Paris. Over here we speak of the north country – northern British Columbia – in terms of cities like Prince George, or towns like Prince Rupert, and a tough, resource-based life with a good deal of fishing and hunting. Prince Rupert, about 1,000 road miles north of where we live in Victoria, lies at a latitude of 54.3 degrees north. At nearly 56 degrees north, Glasgow is a fair bit closer to the North Pole than that.
Harry, Meghan and Archie may well end up spending some of their time here. Who knows? It will all depend where 'home' becomes for them, where they might find a degree of peace and privacy they'll never find in Windsor or probably anywhere else in the UK. By all accounts they were left alone while they were here; left alone to do what the rest of us do – walk the beaches, climb hills, go out for a meal, do some shopping.
Rudyard Kipling made several visits here in the late 19th and early 20th century. Kipling came up with some evocative descriptions of Victoria and southern Vancouver Island. One of them went like this:
'To realise Victoria you must take all that the eye admires in Bournemouth, Torquay, the Isle of Wight, the Happy Valley at Hong Kong, the Doon, Sorrento, and Camps Bay; add reminiscences of the Thousand Islands, and arrange the whole round the Bay of Naples, with some Himalayas for the background... There is a view, when the morning mists peel off the harbour where the steamers tie up, of the Houses of Parliament on one hand, and a huge hotel on the other, which as an example of cunningly fitted-in water-fronts and façades is worth a very long journey...'
In Kipling's day, Victoria was a haven for retired British Army officers who had spent much of their careers in India or Africa. They had found it difficult when they had returned to Britain to live, and they had moved out to western Canada to a place with a good climate where they felt comfortably at home. It's one reason why Victoria today is a little goldmine for the Antiques Road Show
Victoria has changed since Kipling's day into a modern, small city with clubs and pubs, the ocean lapping its shores, and a nearby hinterland that's filled with wildlife – eagles, bears, whales and vistas that are beyond spectacular. We're starting to get far too many tourist visitors, and Victoria is no longer billed as a little piece of old England. But it still has its gardens, curved streets, and its beautiful, extended waterfront. Life is not dull here in western Canada, as the British media seems to think. Far from it. As Robert Louis Stevenson wrote: 'Every place is a centre to the earth'. That centre is where you live.
Last week, the Duchess of Sussex took what I believe was a regularly scheduled floatplane flight from Victoria's inner harbour (the harbour Kipling wrote about) to downtown Vancouver. There she met with social workers and volunteers working one of the toughest beats in all of North America – Vancouver's Downtown East Side. It's the sort of place where you wind up the car windows and lock the door while you're driving through the neighbourhood. Meghan had guts to go anywhere near it. It was just the kind of thing her late mother-in-law would have done.
Photo of Victoria harbour at top by Michael Elcock