Unlike many places I have visited on this trip England was sketched on my unconscious well before I arrived. It’s true to say that my mind map is little confused; having been built from the myriad of stories, authors, characters and poems that I have fed my imagination on over the years, it contains the Hundred Acre Wood, Midsomer, Mansfield Park, Court Green, Hogwarts, Camelot…
It is a strange experience to arrive in a place for the first and discover so much that is familiar yet wholly new at the same time.
Just catching the bus from the airport into London I was bombarded with reminders that this is the home (to mention a few) of Midsomer Murders, Harry Potter, Ted Hughes, Peter Pan, Jane Austen, Prince William and Bridget Jones.
It would be possible to shape a whole trip to England around your favourite fictions, you could visit all the places used while filming Midsomer Murders, or all sights of significance to Jane Austen and get quite a good taste of the country as a whole. And while I have not had such an orderly approach to my visit I have sought out some of these familiar places; familiar yet never seen off the page or the television.
I visited Sylvia Plaths last home with a friend on a rainy afternoon, and stood before the lavender three story trying to imagine what it must have been like for the poet to live out the last months of her life in this house during one of Londons coldest winters ever.
This sight is marked by a round blue plaque; others like the balcony at Buckingham Palace need no such notices to remind visitors of the stories connected to the place. The Palace swarms with tourists eager to glimpse the site of those newly wedded embraces, and I swarmed happily with them.
Other stories are evoked just wandering about city streets and country lanes.Walking my friends dog in the countryside surrounding a quaint little village in Devon I was in storybook land. I was not sure if I was going to stumble across a dead body or Mr Darcy, but I was sure there was something picturesque, dramatic, gruesome and romantic out there waiting for me. And even though in the end I did not fall down the rabbit hole to adventure and nothing more dramatic occured than the dog running off for two minutes other peoples stories were alive to me as I walked.
In Devon I was tempted to make the pilgrimage to Court Green, another one time home of Sylvia Plath and her husband Ted Hughes, but when it came to the choice between this literary landmark and a coastal walk I could not resist the coast.
Seaside walk was the right choice, blue sky and sunshine accompanied us as we walked along cliff edges, over miles of rocky beach, passing seaside cafes, lonely cottages and other dog walkers. At long last we made it to our lunch destination where the half pint and fish and chips were much appreciated.
The weather report had predicted sunshine until 4pm and then showers, and our return journey saw the blue sky replaced by grey. Although the wind on the cliff tops was ferocious the ribbons of grey kept their distance until we were on the last leg of our homeward journey.
Giving my rain coat a workout unfortunately coincided with finding ourselves without a path and in the middle of a patch of blackberries and brambles. With a darkening sky, thickening rain we were not keen to backtrack, and though clearly off our path we headed into the thorns hoping to rediscover the path, or the village or the car.
Half concerned and half amused at having lost our path we made progress as best we could and after a few scratches on the two legged walkers and the dog getting his tail getting caught up by blackberries multiple times we made it out of the brambles and into another field path. This thankfully led to a small scramble over a barb wire fence and then back onto our actual path. We were home (not quite dry) but on the right track to a cup of tea in a blustery seaside town and then a beer at home where dinner was nearly cooked.
Along with beach walks and visits to fondly held fictional friends there have been a few real friends to catch up with as well. Unlike Elizabeth Bennet my real life friends do not eternally walk up country lanes arm in arm with Mr Darcy. There has been a change or five as the years have gone by- a wedding, a bereavement, a break up, growing up, new jobs and old jobs; the general surprising wonderment and banality of life rolling on to be caught up with over a drink or two, a meal and a walk in the park.
My England has been gradually re-mapped to include the underground rail network, Gordens Wine Bar, cliff top paths, the V&A, the Thames, warmish ale and Primrose Hill alongside Hogwarts. All these stories bombarding my brain have gradually led me back to thinking about another story: my own and my uncertainty over what that is.
Sure gadding about from place to place gives you the chance to collect plenty of material but lately it feels as though my larger plot is still elusive.
The Lost Boy
The anything is possible non plot-plot line is a little daunting at times, but I continue to remind myself that searching out whatever my story is- is all part of the adventure, and that Peter Pan may have been a lost boy, but he had an awful lot of fun along the way.