Running alongside my love of reading are a passion for maps and a desire to travel – a real combination of my parents’ interests and all encouraged by them as I was growing up. For a long time my actual travel was very limited but my dreams and my interest never have been, with the result that I have a decided tendency to read books that have a strong sense of place and a definite geographic setting. I only realised this quite recently as, yet again, I got out an atlas to plot the course of a character’s journey.
Thinking back, I must have been nine or ten when I was first bitten by the desire to see new places and especially those places I had read about. And where was that first place? The Austrian Tirol, of course! For me, the Austrian Chalet School began with Rivals of the Chalet School, so it was a winter scene that gripped me. Mum had actually been to Austria (a fact I found amazing at that age) and she could tell me about Innsbruck but she’d never heard of the other places. Dad got out his atlas and we looked at the index but most of them didn’t get a mention. The only one we could find was Maurach. Along with Innsbruck that gave me a rough idea of where the Chalet School was. In those pre-Internet days it took me a long time to amass enough knowledge to hazard a guess that maybe, just maybe, the Tiern See was really the Achensee. And then came Helen McClelland’s Behind the Chalet School, confirming my suspicions. And from that day on it became my ambition to visit Austria and see the real places Elinor Brent-Dyer had used in her books.
I was 25 before the opportunity presented itself, old enough to realise that things would have changed in seventy years! Part of me was very nervous about going to Pertisau but, deep down, I knew that nothing would stop me! And as the train from Jenbach made its way up the mountainside my excitement grew much to the bafflement of the friend with whom I was travelling. As we sailed from Seespitz across to Pertisau I was muttering under my breath, recalling characters and events from Elinor Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School books. It was such a fun day seeing the setting of those books unfold before me. I’ve been back many times and I still love it, with or without its fictional connections.
But there is a dilemma for me. Many of the descriptions of places I’ve read about, particularly in children’s books, are old and very few of the places have stayed anything like the same. And there are some places I am almost too scared to visit for fear that the magic will be lost. Twice I’ve had the chance to go to Prince Edward Island and passed it up. I can’t believe that somewhere that sells itself on the very books that make me want to visit won’t have been spoiled by the sheer number of fellow booklovers. And yet I want to walk down Lovers Lane and ramble in the Haunted Wood and daydream at the Lake of Shining Waters. Should I go and risk disappointment or should I stay at home and live with regrets?
There are some places, however, that in essence seem not to have changed at all in decades. One of those places for me is Peebles in the Scottish Borders. It’s a pretty little town on the banks of the Tweed about twenty miles due south of Edinburgh. It was the setting for some of the novels of the pseudonymous O Douglas in the inter-war period of the twentieth century. As Anna Buchan she lived in the town for many years and had family connections in the wider area going back generations. Her novels draw on her own life and the lives of family members and she writes about Peebles (which she calls Priorsford) with intimate knowledge. One year I took a cottage in the town for a week in December. It was right in the centre, on the bank of the Tweed. Every morning I went for a walk; in the afternoons I wrote Christmas cards and in the evening I read all of the O Douglas novels set in the Borders. And every day I expected to meet Jean Jardine or Kirstie Gilmour or Isobel Logan as I walked about the town, so clearly were they and their pursuits described.
With the advent of the internet I’ve been able to follow characters’ movements more closely. It’s not unusual for me to have a street map of London on a screen as I read about Lord Peter Wimsey or Inspector Alleyn. Recently I followed the action in rural Victoria virtually as I re-read The Far Country by Nevil Shute. And there are any number of train journeys across Europe that can be followed online. Progress can be wonderful!