Photo by Lee Woolcock
Nicola Thornton spoke to Michael Witty, the British walking enthusiast and retired businessman, who is now 75 years old.
The Wittys have been in Barcelona for more than 100 years. My grandfather Arthur and his brother Ernest were presidents of FC Barcelona and what is now the Real Club de Tenis de Barcelona respectively at the same time, during the first decade of the 20th century.
I was born here in 1936, nine days before the start of the Civil War. My parents, both British, ran a shipping agency.
Things were very vicious at the beginning, there was absolute anarchy, so the British sent a warship to take us to safety. I was the youngest refugee and my middle name, Douglas, comes from HMS Douglas, the destroyer vessel that took us to the warship. My doctor takes great delight in calling out “Michael Douglas” when I go to see her.
We came back to Spain when it had all finished. The Barcelona business had collapsed, but my father had found a job with the Rio Tinto copper mining company down in the south so we went there. Then of course, the Second World War started so my mother, me and my newborn brother Chris had to go back to the UK again, this time via a boat from Lisbon.
My father came to London in 1940 and started working for the British Intelligence. When the war was over, he was offered the chance of a permanent job there, or to come back here with his family and start from scratch. He made the choice of coming back. It was February 1947, one of the worst winters Europe had ever had.
By that time, I had started at Radley [public school], so me and my brother would come back here for Christmas; there were no half terms or Easter here. We’d spend 12 weeks of the year at home and the rest at school. I got very used to going backwards and forwards.
My parents were always very keen on walking and we were always taken walking when we were kids, against our will sometimes, but it must have been in my blood because when I married, we started taking the kids straightaway out to the countryside in the pram.
The first ‘Witty Walk’ started in November 1991, exactly 20 years ago. Brian Allendale from the British Society of Catalunya, a new committee then, invited me for lunch and said he was looking for ideas for expat activities. I said: “What about walking? None of you guys knows anything about the Catalan countryside…”
I was amazed that 40 people turned up for the first one. In the blurb, I’d said we’d go through beech woods and autumn colours to Table Top Mountain in the Ayats, where we’d have the most fantastic views. Of course it turned out to be a miserable foggy day!
At that point I realised that going for a walk with 40 people is very different than going for a walk with two or three; you have to be absolutely sure of where you’re going for a start.
Very soon people were asking when the next walk was happening. There were two or three in the first year and then there was one a month. Now I have around 200 people on the mailing list, though thankfully they don’t all turn up every time.
Barcelona has changed so much. I remember it being the last place you wanted to be. You came in to work and you couldn’t wait to get out. The Sagrada Familía was a big construction dump. When everything was being spruced up for the Olympics, we suddenly realised we lived in a city that had some attractions.
I think if there hadn’t been a civil war or 40 years under a dictatorship, there would have been every possibility of Catalunya taking a much larger role in the whole Spanish political scene but because of the dictatorship, it’s understandable there should be a nationalistic feeling.
I haven’t really made my mind up at all about the politics. What I do know is there is very little difference between the press today and the press during the Franco years. The same old emphasis is given to the politicians! In other democracies the press are able to go to politicians, ask questions, get replies quickly and write what they want to write. Here the politicians get in touch with the press and tell them what to write!