When I was seven my auntie took me on a P&O Mediterranean cruise to Palma, Athens and Gibraltar. This was before package travel in 1961. Majorca was pristine – I remember going to the caves of Drach from Palma with our coach bumping over dirt roads. I sound as if I was on the Ark rather than the SS Arcadia...
Back at the start of the 1980s when I was freelancing for the Guardian and The Times, the travel sections totalled about three columns – hardly any of the readers had been much further than France or Spain so any piece about a more distant spot was bound to be interesting. As people have travelled more, travel writing has had to become more imaginative and better focussed. Now print journalism is under severe pressure from the internet – but I think we are beginning to see the pendulum swing back towards newspapers and magazines. They do a job that the internet can’t reproduce.
Travel writing has also become more honest and responsible: gone are the pieces which began: ‘Crete: an island of sparkling contrasts... something for every pocket... blah, blah’. Good travel pieces tell a story and don’t shrink from pointing out the flaws: if journalists start suiting the advertisers rather than the reader, the reader will switch off.
I came across a treasured copy of Treasure Island given to me by my late uncle and it stirred a lot of buried emotions about books and their imaginative hold on us, especially as children. I had at the back of my mind the fact that the map of Treasure Island, the first illustration in the book, was actually the map of Unst in the Shetland Islands. So I went on a journey around some of the major literary places of the UK and ended up in Unst.
There are extraordinary and wonderful places on our doorstep. In writing Treasured Island, I visited Shetland for the first time and it’s one of the most interesting places I’ve ever been to. It has Britain’s most northerly fish-and-chip shop, for goodness sake!
If there were a literary Olympic Games, Britain would sweep the board. We could not only turn out a Literary First XV, we could easily manage Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth teams. No other country has so many writers who have made a mark. France probably has no more than half a dozen literary museums, similarly in Germany or even the States. We love books, we love writers and we love visiting the places they write about whether it’s Hardy’s Wessex or Beatrix Potter’s Lake District.
I loved Virginia Woolf’s Monk’s House in Sussex, also Rudyard Kipling’s Bateman’s is a delight. I hadn’t expected to like Abbotsford because I’m not a big fan of Sir Walter Scott but his house is much better than his books. One of my biggest thrills was discovering the real actual Thirty-Nine Steps as written about by John Buchan.
Unfortunately, the Bronte Parsonage in Haworth is woefully old-fashioned in its presentation – it was about the only place I visited that still had ropes across doorways to stop you entering the rooms. In the Agatha Christie house in Devon you can sit down and play her Steinway Grand Piano (I played the opening of Bohemian Rhapsody: ‘Is this real life or is this just fantasy’). And don’t get me started about the Sherlock Holmes museum...
A lot of detective fiction has visitable locations: Inspector Rebus, for example and Inspector Morse – both very popular tours. I don’t think anybody in the 19th century guessed that we would be so interested in seeing Dickens’ places now. He wasn’t considered a literary great by the literati in his lifetime.
Literary tourism has lots of places and shrines where we can worship – and pay our money for admission tickets and carrot cake. But mostly it’s a private, personal pleasure. I’ll never forget the delight I experienced on first seeing the spot where Adlestrop station stood in the Cotswolds, the place which inspired Edward Thomas to write one of the great poems of the 20th century.
I’m coming to the belief that the National Trust should really take over the running of the country. When people think about what makes Britain ‘Great’, we think of the National Trust and the BBC, national non-governmental institutions run for the benefit of the country. Why couldn’t there be a similar arrangement for Electricity, Gas, Transport and everything else we depend on? The National Trust is amazing, everyone must join immediately!
1953 Born in Monmouthshire, Wales
1981 Joins Business Traveller magazine, an internationally-published periodical
1983-1986 Freelance travel writer for the Sunday Times Magazine, Daily Telegraph and others
1986 Becomes Travel Editor of The Independent newspaper at its launch
1994 Appointed Travel Editor of The Mail on Sunday
1997 Publishes Where Was Wonderland? Traveller’s Guide to the Settings of Classic Children’s Books
2015 Published Treasured Island: A Book Lover’s Tour of Britain
This article was published in the October 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine