When I studied English at university I was told that to be interested in writers, or the places that had inspired them, or indeed anything outside The Text, was slightly vulgar. Of course you don’t need to walk from London to Canterbury to understand Chaucer! How reductive! How naive! How treating-the-text-as-disguised-biography-rather-than-as-literature! Didn’t I know that Shakespeare never set foot in Verona? And so on.
All the same, I reckon Chaucer understood people better than my teachers did when he wrote about the longing to go on pilgrimage. I’ve always loved to visit the scenes of my favourite stories, and relish the paradox of standing in the actual spot where such-and-such a fictional event “really happened”. A few years ago, when I wrote a book about some of my favourite children’s writers and their relationships with the places they grew up in and wrote about, one of my great pleasures was the excuse to seek out these locations. Perhaps oddly, I’ve not yet sampled what is now probably the most complete such experience to be had, by visiting the Manor at Hemingford Grey (a.k.a. Green Knowe), where I’m told that a few lucky visitors even get to hold Tolly’s mouse. (Fans of Lucy Boston will know what I mean, and drool.) I’m saving that up as a future treat.When I was an unpublished author and dreaming of greatness, I rather fancied the idea that, one day, pilgrims might come following after me, wanting to see exactly how I’d worked out my fictional landscapes. They would note the slight liberty I’d taken with the course of a stream, perhaps or, minutely consulting their ancient Ordnance Survey maps, work out how the landscape had changed since my day (for in this daydream I was to have an enduring reputation). This was much in my mind when I came to write a deservedly-unpublished book called The Questing Beast. It was a modern-day fantasy with Arthurian connections, and much of the action was set just outside Winchester, around the water meadows (inspiration for Keats’ “To Autumn”, as the pilgrim in me well knew), and on St Catherine’s Hill, with its hillfort and mysterious miz-maze. It was a harmless enough piece of egotism, I suppose. Many was the pilgrimage I foresaw across this hallowed landscape, and I left plentiful topographical references in the text to make the trip worthwhile for my future acolytes.
Unfortunately the hallowed landscape was called Twyford Down, and no sooner had I written FINIS than the then Conservative government decided to rip it up and put in a motorway. That decision became hugely controversial, and the story of how the Battle of Twyford was fought and lost would make a better book than the one I’d written – but for all the Sites of Special Scientific Interest that were vandalized, I still felt that the whole project was personally directed at me. If it hadn’t been for Cecil Parkinson they’d be calling Hampshire “Butler Country” by now.
Of course, I’m wiser these days, and oh so humble. But I still daydream when I get the chance. And, when I can, I still love to go on pilgrimages.