I WAS the kid who always wanted to put his lucky dip back and choose something else until he got something that he liked. So perhaps experimental travel isn’t for me. It’s a method of travel that invites you to experience a place you know in a new way, or a place you don’t know in a different way. It means setting yourself strict preconditions to a journey, and sticking to them. The idea is that these arbitrary – and quite frequently bonkers – rules force you to see it in a different light. Some examples include “Backpacking at Home” – being a backpacker in a cheap hostel in your own city – or “Monopoly Travel” – find a Monopoly board for your chosen city and use it to navigate your way around the city, using dice to dictate your position on the board and, hence, in the city. I read about all this last week in the excellent Lonely Planet Guide to Experimental Travel. But you can read about all of the ideas in the book, from the author, here.
Anyway, I had a Saturday to myself, solo, and I was at a loose end. So I decided to give it a go. The first method that I decided on was A-Z travel – find the first place in the index of the A-Z of where you live and then walk from there to the last place in the index. I’m not sure when you last looked in the index of the London A-Z, but let me refresh your memory: A is for Aaron Hill, E5, Beckton – just next to Beckton Sewage Treatment works and London City Airport. And, coincidentally, a mere 12.1 miles from Zoffany Street, N19, in Holloway. Yeah, maybe not.
So next was travel to K2. All you have to do is open a map of a place at random, and then travel to grid square K2 on the map. So I opened the A-Z of London. I got an industrial estate in Thamesmead. I closed the A-Z.
Instead, I decided to make up my own experimental travel. I decided to visit the grave of a dead poet. It’s not a usual tourist destination and it will force me to go somewhere new. Thus, I decided, the criteria of experimental travel (such as they are) would be met.
A quick check of poetsgraves.co.uk (you mean you don’t have it bookmarked? Now’s your chance…) and I had my target: the resting place of Alexander Pope, Twickenham. Pope, writing in the early 1700s, was a great satirist: he wrote about hypocrisy, greed and high society. He was a contemporary and friend of Jonathan Swift (of Gulliver’s Travels fame). He was also ostracised as a Catholic, stunted from ill health as a child (he had a hunchback and grew to be only 4ft 6in) and wrote bitter, angry, funny poetry. In short, there’s a lot to like about Pope. So why not visit his grave?
I packed for my journey: London 2012 water canteen (surgeons have tried to separate it from me, but no success so far), camera, and a copy of James Boswell’s London Journal, 1762 – 1763. Boswell’s not quite a contemporary of Pope’s, but he was the best guide to eighteenth century London that I had. His map wasn’t much use, though.
I made a detour on my way to Twickenham, to Marylebone High Street. I walked past an hour long queue for Madame Tussauds. Who would queue for an hour to go an see some wax models? I shook my head, walked past and checked that I was on time for my trip to a graveyard on the other side of London.
Actually, my real reason for the Marylebone stop was to visit Daunt books, a fantastic travel book shop. I had a book token burning a hole in my pocket.
Happily having just spent twice as much as I would I have paid on Amazon, I left the bookstore with a smart new book on travel photography. Next stop: Pope’s grave.
Twickenham is as far away west by train from Waterloo as Greenwich, my home, is east: 20 minutes. It seemed like an age travelling in the wrong direction. I arrived to overcast skies, but at least the rain had stopped. I expected Twickenham to be full of posh gastropubs, with yummy-mummys pushing their bugaboo strollers down the street and men wearing driving gloves at the wheel of their sports cars. In fact, I was ejected from the station onto a main road. Everything was the colour of the sky: grey. And then I saw this:
I passed a few kebab shops, some chain pubs, a bit of graffiti. A Waitrose. That’s all that West London is, I realised: it’s just like south east London, but with a Waitrose. It started to drizzle.
The cemetery was small, but old. I walked amongst and, frequently, over the graves. This is not a cemetery where people still get buried.
I’d done a few orbits of the churchyard, checking headstones and taking pictures. Many were faded beyond readability, others were made unreadable by the glossy sheen of rainwater that covered everything.
A cracking, rumbling peal of thunder that shook the sky roused me from my headstone enquiries. I stood, alone, in the cemetery. And did I feel perhaps a little bit odd, a little tragic, that I had chosen to spend my saturday coming to this place on the other side of London? Maybe a little, but that moment when the thunder rolled around the cemetery was delicious in its atmosphere – what better, what more appropriate place, could I be during a thunderstorm, I thought to myself. I felt like a character in a novel. And then it started to rain. I mean, properly rain.
My shoes filled with water. My jeans gained several pounds in weight and the denim began to stick to my legs. My coat wasn’t waterproof. My umbrella was inadequate. I stood under the eaves of the church taking pictures of the rain, until it was too wet to do even that. So instead I just stood and cursed the world.
After a while, the rain slackened off. There was still clearly water falling from the sky, but it was more like water from a hosepipe, not a pressure hose. As I stepped from under the eaves of the church, I saw a group of about five people across the street from the cemetery, sheltering under a doorway. They had quite clearly been watching me as I took photos of the place. They probably thought that I wanted to steal the lead from the roof. It was time to flee from this site of my failure. But then, just as I was leaving the graveyard, I saw it, high up on one wall of the church:
My mood lifted immediately. None of it had been in vain! I’d found, sort of, what I came to see – evidence that Pope had been here. I gave a cheery wave to the people still sheltering in a doorway on the other side of the road, and squelched my way back to the station. I felt pretty good. I’d set myself some arbitrary rules, I’d been to a part of London I’d never been before, I’d had an experimental travel experience. My reward to myself? I went and bought my dinner at Waitrose.