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STATELY HOME VACATIONS
There isn’t an English equivalent of the Swedish word ‘hemmablind’, but there ought to be. Literally translated as ‘home blind’, it means failing to appreciate things that are right under your nose. For people in Uppsala it’s a particularly cruel affliction, because there’s so much for them to appreciate.
‘I’ve spoken to Richard,’ said the voice on the telephone, ‘and he says he can find you a bedroom in the house which isn’t haunted. I’m sure you’ll be all right.’
The house in question was Tissington Hall, a splendid Derbyshire manor which celebrates its 400th birthday next year; my host, Sir Richard FitzHerbert Bt. Quite how many of his deceased ancestors were also in residence was something, I decided, I would prefer not to know until dawn had peeped cheerfully in through my leaded window.
The medieval Gough Map is the oldest recognisable map of Britain, and one of the great treasures of the Bodleian Library in Oxford. No one knows who created it or why, but it represents a quantum leap in map-making, which before it was largely theological – showing, for instance, England’s position in relation to the Garden of Eden. Travellers needing practical information on how to get from A to B were dependent on ‘itineraries’ – lists of places that they had to pass through – supplemented by local guides.
For anyone who suffers from vertigo, swaying on a wooden suspension bridge 75 feet above the Peruvian rainforest floor is not a preferred occupation. The bridges may be expertly anchored with steel cables, and their sides enclosed in chest-high mesh, but the overactive imagination cannot help picturing a plunge through the dense foliage to be lunched on by a vulture.
‘I thought I was in Dorset,’ said the bemused motorist, ‘but I seem to have taken the road to Peru by mistake.’
His surprise was understandable. Sauntering past him along a country lane rich in buttercups, periwinkles and cow parsley were half a dozen llamas, looking every inch the woolly sort of fleecy hairy goats of Hilaire Belloc’s description. If we, their handlers, had been wearing homespun blankets instead of hardy British waterproofs, and playing El Condor Pasa on Pan pipes as we walked, the effect could hardly have been weirder.
‘Fore!’ I yelled, and the seagulls scattered. There may have been a stout net between me and them, but they weren’t taking any chances – and nor, as an absolute beginner, was I. I had read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and the last thing I wanted on my hands as I thrashed golf balls on the Bay of Naples was a dead seabird.
‘Hm,’ said the Chinese fortune-teller, studying my date of birth. ‘You were born in the year of the dog, but you are a horse. You are a light sleeper because your bowel movements are not regular. Many ladies love you, but you can’t share a bed with them. You should pour water over your stomach when you go to the toilet, and drink prune juice every day.’
Though not entirely convinced by this analysis, I thanked him and promised to e-mail him for further enlightenment. What he hadn’t told me was that I was going on a long journey – but as we were sitting in the saloon car of the Eastern & Oriental Express, at the start of its 1,262-mile run from Singapore to Bangkok, that probably went without saying.
In the autumn of 1970, a distinguished art collector and his wife made a trip to the Soviet Union with the state travel agency Intourist. Moscow and Leningrad were enjoyable enough, but Kiev was marred by a guide who made constant comparisons between the gangster-ridden West and her own ‘crime-free’ city. Only when her charges had been pick-pocketed and taken to look at hundreds of mugshots at the local police station was she reduced to silence.
If Jonathan Swift were summoned from the grave to write a sequel to Gulliver’s Travels, it might contain the following episode. Gulliver puts ashore on a small island off the north-west coast of Africa, and finds it divided in two by a range of mountains. On one side the terrain is stony and desiccated; on the other it is lush and green. Yet to Gulliver's astonishment, a succession of invading tribes (closely related to the Yahoos) have colonised the stony side of the island, covering the shore with densely built pleasure palaces. When asked why they choose to live in a desert, they reply that the land beyond the mountains is covered by a perpetual rain cloud – though as Gulliver subsequently discovers, this is a delusion. The original inhabitants, meanwhile, live happily on the fertile side of the island, marvelling at the invaders’ bizarre choice of territory.
‘Sorry not to get back to you sooner,’ said the e-mail. ‘I’ve been out fighting bush fires.’ This was not what you want to hear from the man who is organising your four-day walking tour in one of the most densely forested regions of Australia. I had seen last winter’s television footage of conflagrations in the Blue Mountains – curtains of flame billowing across woodland, small towns igniting – and imagined being handed a hose on arrival with instructions to point it at the base of my hotel. But Tim Tranter insisted that my trip could go ahead, and fearing that only a Pom would whinge at the prospect of being burnt to crisp, I took his word for it.
To a non-skier, the names St Moritz and Zermatt are rich with glamour and reproach. In theory, yes, you could pitch up at either and jostle with the downhill racers for glasses of gluhwein; but without being able to brag about black runs and off-piste mayhem, you are going to feel pretty small. What you need is an excuse to be there – one which sounds, in its own way, rather quirky and buccaneering; and the Glacier Express supplies this. Mention casually that your seven-and-a-half hour journey between the two resorts will take you across 291 bridges and through 91 tunnels, and you may find Jean-Claude Killy buying you a drink.
There are no flight-arrivals announcements on the island of North Ronaldsay: instead, a sudden scattering of sheep signals the descent of an incoming aircraft. This is because the airfield is exactly that – a field. And before you protest that the unfortunate sheep should be moved elsewhere, bear in mind that in their book an acre of grass is the Garden of Eden: most of the time they eat seaweed. A rough dyke runs along the perimeter of the island to confine them to the stony shore, where they dine among gulls and guillemots.
There cannot be many places of worship with a more forbidding aspect than the Convento de Cristo at Tomar, eighty miles north of Lisbon. Built as a fortress as well as a monastery, it lours above the town like Oscar Wilde’s selfish giant, its gloomy yellow walls piled on mournful grey ramparts. Your first instinct, on reaching the end of the steep and winding road up to it, is to jump back in your hire car and return to the duel-to-the-death known as Portugal’s A1 motorway.
East Coker’s significance for T.S. Eliot lay in the fact that Andrew Elyot, the founding father of his American family, had set out from here for the New World in the mid-seventeenth century. When Eliot came to write Four Quartets, his great sequence of philosophical poems, East Coker provided the inspiration for the second of them; and it was here, in the village church, that his ashes were buried on Easter Sunday 1965.
There is a school of science fiction in which the hero finds himself in a world with a superficial resemblance to his own. The countryside looks the same, the buildings look the same, the people look the same – until he notices a small, entirely alien detail which reveals that he is actually in a different galaxy.
For some people, the soul of India is to be found in its city life. They like to rhapsodise about the vibrancy of the teeming streets, the pungency of the smells, and the colourful anarchy of the bazaar, as if the universe must remain a closed book to anyone who has not been harried within an inch of his life by hawkers and beggars, besieged by shopkeepers who claim a close personal acquaintance with John Cleese or Jeremy Irons, and forced into the gutter by a maniac in a motor-rickshaw.