With the aid of an old guidebook and a sense of adventure, it’s pretty easy to take a trip to the past
Author Liz Granirer Illustration Celine Loup
It used to be that travel had an edge to it—if not of actual danger, then at least of adventure. You’d come home from some faraway spot with a smug expression and a hatful of stories, like the one about having to fight off a bear armed with nothing more than a rolled-up newspaper and a package of extra-strong mints.
These days, thanks in large part to the 800 million online guides out there, much of this uncertainty has gone the way of the fold-out map, and with it much of the excitement. In fact, we not only know what we’ll be doing and seeing when we travel, we’re pretty much set on what we’ll be having for dinner when we arrive. As for that troublesome bear—there are wildlife apps that will help you steer clear of him.
So it was that my boyfriend and I set out to inject a little ambiguity into our travel plans. I’d recently picked up an odd little book called Country Walks,
published before World War II. Let’s toss the smartphones aside, I suggested, ignore the citizen advisers. My boyfriend frowned, then sighed, but to no avail. We were going walking in the English countryside, circa 1936.
The fascinating thing about this trip, for me, was that by using a guidebook written 78 years ago, we’d effectively be traveling in time. We’d get to see which of the features described in the book had survived and which hadn’t. To add to the uncertainty, we’d open it to a random page and let fate be our guide. We’d be like those adventurous types who spin a globe with eyes closed and finger poised, only more provincial.
Fate, or, rather, page 66, guided us to a hamlet called Little Missenden, “a harmony of rusticity” in Buckinghamshire, about an hour from London. This was to be the starting point of our trek—a single-lane road running beside a few brick houses, a duck pond and a pub. The book’s author, Charles White, was sending us on a seven-mile hike that would begin in earnest when we arrived at a trail running beside a stream. Sure enough, a few minutes after setting out, we saw it: the stream, burbling along just as it was supposed to. Along with the burbling was the sound of traffic on a modern highway, but that was OK. There was a part of me hoping for pathos regarding the inevitability of change. In addition to the highway, there was plenty on our trip to satisfy this wish: the Tesco superstore abutting the “picturesque buildings” of Old Amersham’s High Street; the humming electrical substation located “by the fringe of the beautiful woodland.”
There were times when the directions in Country Walks were so strange they seemed almost like a foreign language. “Carry on to the Mop End guidepost,” we were told. “Left by the path in the wood and then along a mere grass-track which ends at a cross-path.” We were able to find neither guidepost nor mop, but that was part of the appeal. There was a thrill in exploring the space between what was and what is. Every bend and hilltop promised another uncertainty, every lost landmark a delicious pang of melancholy.
There were, of course, moments when White’s vision harmonized with our own. Here, on top of a small hill, stood Shardeloes, a stately home built (according to the author) in the 18th century. Here was “the meadow path,” and here the cottage-garden flowers nodding in the breeze, the silence broken only by the drone of a bee. It was as if the eight decades separating White’s stroll and our own had somehow been wiped away. And this, oddly, seemed just as poignant as the intrusion of the superstore and the substation, or the absence of the Mop End guidepost—the losses not yet realized.
There was also something reassuring about White’s writing style—authoritative, attentive, appreciative. This was a voice you could trust. With old Charlie White at the helm, we would never get lost. Except we did. We got very badly lost. Was this muddy, rutted trail before us the mere grass-track or the cross-path? It was hard to tell, given the fact that it was getting dark.
“I think we’ve gone off-book,” my boyfriend said, helpfully.
This was when I cracked, whipping out my smartphone and leaving those simpler, lovelier times behind—which is kind of where they belong, after all. “Look, here we are.” I pointed at the screen. “That blue dot.” According to our GPS, we were a mere thumbnail from the tiny clutter of houses that made up Mop End, and beyond this was the car.
That night, in bed, I opened Country Walks and continued reading: “The Misbourne suddenly ceases to be a reed-hidden brook and expands into a lake, down to which the thirsty cattle come. In bluebell time, it is preferable to take the field path from the cage-wicket and rejoin the course at the end of the meadow.”
I hadn’t the faintest idea what a cage-wicket was. Neither did Google, much less my Google Maps app.
London-based writer Liz Granirer has fallen in love with the phrase “in bluebell time.”