God willing, the dreaded coronavirus won't stop us holidaying around the country. Harry Mount introduces the new Oldie guide to the best of Britain
God willing, the dreaded coronavirus won't stop us holidaying around the country this summer.
And the new Oldie Guide to Britain and its Festivals is a perfect fit for your travel bag and glovebox. Every one of the articles has been selected and edited by the Oldie’s planet-brained Queen of the Road, Liz Anderson.
The writers are so good – and their knowledge of the places they write about so complete - that it works as a gazetteer to the highlights of Britain, even if you don’t plan on going to a single festival.
Lots of the writers actually live in the towns they guide you around. Craig Brown, the funniest writer alive, knows the geography of his home town of Aldeburgh inside out. And so he knows that, if you’re at an AS Byatt talk in the town’s Jubilee Hall, and someone asks her a question, there’s enough time to ‘rush to the sea, strip off, have a quick dip, rub yourself dry and be back in your seat before she had finished answering it: “…and that, in a very real sense, is arguably what I feel about the issue – next question!”’
Chalke Valley local James Holland remembers his nextdoor neighbour as a boy: none other than the photographer and designer Cecil Beaton, who ‘once helped us retrieve an escaped bantam cockerel – he appeared wearing an enormous Panama and clutching a butterfly net.’
You’ll find the best writers in The Oldie’s packed stable of thoroughbreds between the covers. Here is the late, much missed Candida Lycett-Green on the architecture of Eastbourne. She quotes the town’s old landlord, the Duke of Devonshire: ‘The combination of military music and crashing breakers is far more intoxicating than any alcohol.’
Oldie writers have taken planes, trains, automobiles – and boats, in the case of Camilla Swift’s trip to Cowes – to the four corners of the country. Ian Irvine escorts you from your armchair to Colonsay in the Hebrides – so sublime in its beauty that, Ian discovers, it inspired the director Michael Powell to film I Know Where I’m Going (1945) there.
As you tour Britain through these pages, you also get a book-lover’s guide to each featured place. Take your pick of your favoured literary theme – whether it’s Scottish books in Edinburgh, history in Chalke Valley or the great Welsh visionary RS Thomas in Aberdaron.
You’ll find tips on places to say and eat, along with all the information you need to enjoy each place and its festival. Years ago, I visited the Hay Festival and went for lunch, in the pouring rain, at Llanthony Priory, the ruined Augustinian Priory in the nearby Vale of Ewyas. As I ate my beef stew, I eavesdropped on a couple on honeymoon as they discussed their plans for the festival: ‘Let’s go to Gordon Brown first, and then Howard Jacobson.’
At the time, I thought it was a pretty funny way to spend your honeymoon. But, as I’ve grown older, I’ve realised that lunch sums up the rare joy of British literary festivals: the chance to hear the country’s greatest writers and its leading figures talk in the flesh in some of its most alluring, often out-of-the-way spots.
Happy travels and happy reading – both of this bumper guide and your favourite books at the best British festivals - if, please God, we are all free to travel round the country this summer.