Apologies for the absence of updates to this blog. Two small people are keeping me busy and away from here. I am travelling and writing as much as I can, though, and hope to share some news soon. x
Like many small children, my son Vincent has an obsession with Thomas the Tank Engine. Or rather, he did. From his second birthday until recently, hours of our days were consumed by Thomas, Henry and James et al. Railway tracks could be found in paving stones, the TV remote was called the Fat Controller, and causing “confusion and delay” was a serious transgression indeed. My baby son’s middle name is Thomas, which was a compromise: Vincent at three had been an enthusiastic advocate for Gordon.
Thanks to Thomas Land, Vincent and I may have been two of Drayton Manor’s most frequent visitors in 2014, using our off-peak passes almost every Friday throughout the spring and summer. I probably lost count while on Winston’s Whistle Stop Tours, having deliberately banged my head against the steering wheel.
But I always knew those days were as precious and fleeting as toddlerhood itself. When we got the chance to visit Japan this summer, Thomas Land at the Fuji-Q Highland Resort came high on my wish list. Vincent would start school a few weeks later and I could already see his passion for trains making way for Star Wars and superheroes, taking with it a sweet little era in our lives.
“Wow, look at those big mountains,” Vincent said, nose squashed against the window of the coach we’d caught from Tokyo. The day was overcast but we could see far enough to realise the drama of Fuji-Q’s setting, near the foot of Mount Fuji. Unsurprisingly the air felt cooler and fresher than in the city. Gazing at the ascensions and plummets of the fierce Fujiyama, once the world’s tallest rollercoaster, I briefly wished I could view Fuji from its 79-metre peak. But today was for a little boy, and perhaps for saying goodbye to a little blue engine.
Fuji-Q’s Thomas Land was laid out differently to its Drayton Manor counterpart but had a similar vibe, with eateries and bright shopfronts such as Mrs Kyndley’s Kitchen and Elsbridge Photo Studio evoking a quaint British town. Lady Topham Hatt’s Pavilion, a covered space for outdoor eating, lent an upper-class air: a theme-park Cotswolds transposed to Japan.
Vincent and I started out in a circus-styled maze, constructed from giant wooden crates. It felt confining and not remotely fun inside, with the only link to trains pressed into ink stamps that guests were encouraged to collect along the way. Hot and lost, and fed up with being nudged by similarly hot, lost people, I inwardly cheered when Vincent asked whether we could try something else.
Our next experience was, again, only loosely connected to Thomas and Friends – this time via colourful hoardings depicting some of Sodor’s engines. We borrowed a pair of Crocs-style shoes each, rented two plastic sleds and spent a happy half hour hurtling down a pile of artificial snow, occasionally blasted by a man with a snow machine. Vincent shrieked with laughter, and I hushed my inner eco-worrier who frets about the environmental cost of maintaining snow in 30-degree sunshine. We played until ice seeped into our Crocs and numbed our toes.
Not wishing to miss out on valuable ride time, we grabbed hotdogs and orange juice for lunch. The food at Fuji-Q was varied and plentiful, catering to predominantly Japanese, Chinese and Korean tourists. Snacks in Thomas Land included Thomas-shaped pancakes, which we bought mid-afternoon when Vincent was flagging. Elsewhere in the park we tried ice-cream and delicious deep-fried ‘hurricane’ potatoes, twizzled around a stick.
Skipping the Harold and Bulstrode rides that are replicated at Drayton Manor, we tried Everybody Twist, a carousel featuring small versions of popular engines. We got Bill, or maybe Ben. The ride played a Thomas song as it whirled us around, and everyone sang along while bashing the tambourine that had been hooked over their train’s funnel. I found the idea cute and funny, but couldn’t imagine it catching on among cynical Brits – even tiny, Thomas-loving ones. Vincent looked confused and mildly embarrassed, although he asked to go on it again later.
We queued for Thomas and Percy’s Fun Ride which I expected to be a straightforward trip around the park, like the one-way journey at Drayton Manor which takes guests from the front of Thomas Land to the museum and zoo. This turned out to be a story ride, though, narrated in Japanese via loudspeakers and featuring Sir Topham Hatt, Winston, Cranky the Crane and – causing a small, clammy hand to find and grip my own hand – Diesel 10 flexing his dreaded claw. Worse still, as we rounded a bend, Vincent caught sight of a scene he’s always cowered from on TV: Henry bricked into a tunnel.
“Mummy!” he hissed. “I never, ever want to go on this ride again.”
I understood: the Henry episode had half-fascinated, half-terrified me as a child too. But to my frustration Vincent was now spooked and refused to board the Great Gatagoto Adventure, a party-themed ride, or Exciting Cruise, which promised not excitement exactly but a gentle boat journey ‘through Trevor’s orchard’.
“Look – those children are all younger than you and they’re not frightened,” I told Vincent. It was true: he was one of the biggest children there. The Thomas magic must wear off quickly in Japan too.
“But the Troublesome Trucks have horrible faces and they’re being really pushy,” he said, digging his sandals into the concrete platform.
Suppressing my inner mother-logue (“You don’t realise how lucky you are!”) because this was meant to be a special day, I coaxed him into the Thomas Land theatre. Although the film was in Japanese and incomprehensible to us, I felt reasonably confident it followed a similar plot to most other Thomas stories: engine causes confusion and delay; engine is bumped, decommissioned or bricked up in a tunnel; engine learns its lesson and vows to be Really Useful next time. Nevertheless I appreciated cooling down in the air-conditioned auditorium and seeing Vincent laugh at Thomas’s capers through 3D glasses.
With perfect (infuriating) four-year-old logic, Vincent chose for our final attraction a ‘blue rollercoaster’ he’d spotted from afar. The Great Fluffy Sky Adventure featured cute manga characters but was higher, faster and scarier than any ride in Thomas Land.
“Are you sure?” I asked him, as the ride attendant checked he met the minimum height requirement. We queued for the best part of two hours in exchange for a couple of minutes spent flying through the air in a car shaped like hamsters on a cloud. He yelled joyfully throughout and asked afterwards whether I had been really, really scared.
“Because I wasn’t at all. It was the best ride in the world!”
And suddenly I knew I’d no longer let myself feel sad about the Thomas pyjamas that are rapidly becoming too small, or the once-beloved wooden engines that seldom come out of their box. Although Vincent’s toddlerhood may be behind us, the biggest and best fun of his childhood stretches out like railway tracks ahead . . .
Who set his own shirt on fire to cure a bout of hiccups?
What experience did John Betjeman describe as like “being lifted up to heaven”?
Where can you pet a llama, go down a mine, sing in an old-time music hall or stand with one leg in England and one leg in Wales?
When was Shropshire a coral reef in a tropical sea?
Why did weeping Victorian tourists flock to a ‘grave’ in Tong?
Find the answers to all these questions and more in Slow Travel: Shropshire, published by Bradt Travel Guides to a very positive reception in February this year.
Between now and the end of November 2016, I’m taking orders for signed copies – the ideal Christmas present for anyone who loves Shropshire already, or who deserves to be let in on the secrets of this quietly beautiful, unjustly overlooked, historically important county.
Get your signed copy directly from me, the author, for only £12 (RRP £12.99) plus £2.30 P&P*. Just send me a message with your details: I’ll forward you a link for instant payment and get the book to you right away, with the handwritten sentiment of your choice inside.
Please hurry, though, as I have only limited stock. This offer will end on Wednesday 30 November.
*Price for UK second-class postage. Please let me know in your message if you’re overseas or need it sooner than a second-class service can deliver.
My book for Bradt Travel Guides is available to buy now in online bookshops and some of the best real-life mainstream and indie ones too (cover price is £12.99).
The book came out two days before my second baby so I’ve been very busy (and awake) ever since.
Here is just some of the lovely feedback I’ve received so far:
“an interesting read even for a local, puts a really interesting spin on places you normally only ever drive (or ride) past”
From Shropshire Review
. . . “an excellent guide book, packed to bursting with information and painstakingly gathered detail which will have not only visitors but also natives of the county wanting to get out there and explore.”
From a PhD student at the Ironbridge International Institute for Cultural Heritage at the University of Birmingham:
“it’s a lovely format and felt much more like travel writing than a traditional guide book. I was really impressed by the depth of research that went into it and the way it drew me into the stories of the places in it.”
Over at Amazon:
“I found myself reading it almost from cover to cover.”
Just a few of many sweet tweets:
You’ll also find lots of extra content at the Bradt website.
At this very moment it is likely I am wearing wellies, hopping over a stile, falling in a mere, climbing a hill, testing cream tea (VERY important), scribbling down museum opening hours or waiting for a train. Or just holed up in my office writing …
Slow Travel: Shropshire will be published by Bradt Travel Guides in February 2016. Available for pre-order now.
Edith & I is a travelogue which spans time as well as distance. In 1900, an English anthropologist named Edith Durham traversed the Accursed Mountains into Kosovo, shaded from the Balkan sun by her tam o’shanter. She was honoured for her humanitarian work and for championing the unity and independence of Albania.
One hundred years later and another Englishwoman, Elizabeth Gowing, is working in Pristina, Kosovo where her local friends and students occasionally compare her to a certain AyDIT DourHAM. This is puzzling to Elizabeth – and then flattering once she learns who Edith Durham was. We are given a synopsis of the Edwardian woman’s life, neatly, through a cloze passage Elizabeth completes with a student.
Elizabeth reads Edith’s High Albania and feels “the faltering beginning of a relationship”, finding familiarity in many of Edith’s thoughts and experiences and warming to “her sense of humour, her intrepidity, her frankness”. It’s when Elizabeth finds herself back in London, out of sorts and missing Kosovo, that her journey into the past, into Edith’s life, truly starts. Empathising with a melodramatic line of Edith’s (written during her stifling years in London spent caring for her ailing mother), Elizabeth sets out to learn not about Edith the Queen of the Mountain People at first, but Edith “the rather stout lady stuck in Hampstead”.
Elizabeth’s descent into archives and museum storage is reminiscent, for me, of the academic pursuit (as both activity and action) that takes place in AS Byatt’s extraordinary novel Possession. Of course Edith & I is non-fiction and Elizabeth is racing neither against the clock nor rival scholars in her quest for information. Neverthess she maintains pace and suspense by making Edith three-dimensional to the reader as she becomes three-dimensional to Elizabeth. First there are photographs and postcards, then Elizabeth finds Edith’s traditional ‘opinga’ shoes, “which could have just been scuffed off by her while she popped in for a coffee”. The scene in the British Library when Elizabeth listens to a recording of Edith’s voice, captured on wax cylinders in Albania, gave me goosebumps.
As Elizabeth’s journey with Edith progresses, we read excerpts from old diaries, letters and notebooks; are bumped along Kosovan roads in a ‘motokultivator’ (“the most basic form of self-propulsion possible”); enter the homes and lives of people directly connected to Edith. From Elizabeth’s retracing of Edith’s steps (backwards) through the Rugova valley, to her visiting an old Serbian monastery, there is plenty to sate the appetites of readers who enjoy travel writing. We learn more about what drives Elizabeth, and see parallels between the lives of the two women, but Elizabeth always reserves centre stage for Edith.
There must come a sense of responsibility in reanimating a person from fragments, letters, objects. Elizabeth does this sensitively, speculating a little but usually allowing Edith to shine through in her own words and known actions. I empathised with Elizabeth’s desire to find a love interest for Edith, to learn whom she “shared intimacy, or adventures, with”, as this is so often the key to a person’s essence.
Through Elizabeth’s warm writing, borne from thorough research, it’s obvious how fond of her “strangely endearing” subject she becomes, treating her with tenderness and compassion; refusing to make assumptions. Even views of Edith’s that modern readers might find unpalatable, Elizabeth sets in historical context, achieving that delicate balance of neither condoning nor condemning.
Elizabeth’s writing, as always, is compelling; her narrative persona humble and likeable. For me, not a page passed in Edith & I where I didn’t smile at the beauty of a sentence or comical or wry observation: “perhaps we are all incongruous in our love letters, just as we are in our dressing gowns”. The last two chapters in particular soar and achieve something, I believe, good travel literature should do: transcend their immediate subject matter to say more about people, families and the complexities of the lives we lead.
Edith & I is travel writing, history, love, and passion for a subject all rolled into one enjoyable journey.
You can read more about Elizabeth – and Edith – at www.edith-and-i.com.
I’ve got a feature in August 2013’s special coastal edition of Real Family Travel, the brilliant iPad magazine based in the US.