4 out of 5 stars
We have a rich and long literary history in this country and whichever part of the country that you start in you can find an author and a little bit of history behind them to explain the context. In Footnotes, Peter Fiennes has chosen a dozen of his favourite authors to write about and travel to the places that they are best known in.
Starting in my home county of Dorset with the famous children’s writer Enid Blyton. Standing on the seafront in Swanage in a brutally cold wind, he imagines her in one of her books describing the weather as ‘lovely’. She was a complicated character and some of her books could be described as controversial in our more enlightened times. It was a place that she fell in love with after a day trip there from Bournemouth, and when you read some of her books you can sense the presence of the Purbecks.
His next author is Wilkie Collins and this part of Fiennes grand tour takes him to Cornwall. Collins was there to write a travel book set in Cornwall and he had got as far as Plymouth on the new-fangled railway, he would then have to rely on coaches after the boat across the Tamar. He stays with Colins in the next chapter and journey from Lamorna Cove to Launceston and is joined by Ithell Colquhoun, author of The Living Stones. There are no blue plaques celebrating her, unlike a lot of the other artists who were based here, but they do find where her hut was. It is very different from the corrugated iron shack she lived in though. Wending his way up the North cast he tops at Tintagel and has a heart-stopping moment crossing the slender bridge to get to the island.
He then heads on to Hereford, this time accompanied by Celia Fiennes, who is a distant relation of his. But as he points out you don’t have to go very far back up the family tree to see that we are much more interrelated than people think. She was moving around the West Country in 1698 where they had long miles and it was a time when very few people knew how far they were travelling and when they could expect to arrive. From Hereford, it is easy to cross the border into Wales and the earliest author in this book, Gerald of Wales. Gerald was part Welsh and in one of his books he spends half of it praising the people of the country and the later half denouncing the people. Heading to North Wales he is following Edith Somerville and Violet ‘Martin’ Ross and joins them struggling up Snowdon. They had discovered a demand for travel journalism and this was a Welsh jaunt to write and make some money.
Next Fiennes heads to the Midlands and is tracing the routes of J.B Priestly and Beryl Bainbridge from Birmingham to Liverpool. They had taken similar routes, but five decades apart and had both written books called, English Journey. He has a trip around the Cadbury factory whilst feeling slightly delicate after a night in a pub. Wilkie Collins is back again, but this time accompanying Dickens on a train journey to Cumberland and they undertake an almost disastrous climb of Carrock Fell. Samuel Johnson and James Boswell are the two authors that he has chosen for a brief visit to Scotland. Johnson had been invited by Boswell to visit for ages and was always too busy, but he relented and suddenly decided he wanted to see one of the last wildernesses in the UK. Heading south, Fiennes joins J.B Priestly and Beryl Bainbridge again in Newcastle. He bumps briefly into Celia Fiennes before heading to London and finally Kent to meet with Dickens again.
This book feels like a homage to his formative years as a reader rediscovering his favourite authors. But it is more than that, at its heart, it is a travel book as he moves around the country in the virtual company of his chosen writers and intertwined with this is history and a snapshot of modern Britain. It is a gentle and relaxed form of travel too; he is not in a rush to get to the next place and it gives him time to mull things over and discover those nuggets of information about the places he is staying and his virtual companions. Well worth reading.