Walt Mills: Setting out on a journey to imaginary England found in books

At the Middle PassageJuly 6, 2014 

This summer we are planning our trip to England.

In some ways we have been planning it since our daughters were old enough to read and fell in love with all the books that take place there. First it was the Harry Potter books. Then they moved on to Jane Austen.

Lately we have been steeped in the time travel novels of Connie Willis about the Blitz — the German air raids on London in World War II.

I’ve read and enjoyed those authors as well, but my favorite novel about England is “The Good Companions,” the story of a troupe of traveling entertainers between the world wars, as they crisscross the English countryside having romance and adventures.

It is a tremendously entertaining picaresque, middle-brow novel by J.B. Priestley, a popular London playwright and novelist of the mid-20th century who is not often read anymore.

We’ve also been listening in the car to a series of lectures on CD called “London: A Short History of the Greatest City in the Western World,” which at 24 lectures is not exactly short, but it is fascinating.

We may not be able to navigate the underground, but we should be pretty up on the Great Plague of 1665.

We have booked seats on the Irish airline Aer Lingus and will touch down for a few hours at Shannon Airport going and coming, so I will be able to step outside and breathe the air where James Joyce and William Butler Yeats forged the uncreated conscience of their race.

When we first booked the flight, it looked like we would have a day to wander around Dublin, like Joyce’s hero in “Ulysses,” but the agent called back to say that flight was full. Now we will probably spend the time buying souvenirs in the airport gift shop.

We’re going to pick up a rental car at Heathrow and drive across England to the Lake District, where William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge wandered the fields and hills, composing “Lyrical Ballads” (1798) in their heads, or so I imagine.

Before we do that, I will have to practice driving around the car park with the steering wheel on the wrong side and a gear shifter in my left hand. Extra car insurance might be in order.

We have rented a little cottage in the Lake District for a week — “where peace comes dropping slow” as Yeats once wrote about another quiet place in another country.

We haven’t given a lot of planning to this part of the trip, mostly hiking and sightseeing and maybe a day trip by train to Scotland. It has been a busy year, and I wouldn’t mind a little peace before the next part.

Then we take our time driving back across England to what is advertised as a quiet flat in North London.

We will be there for a week, mostly going to things that are free, like the museums and the street markets. We definitely will take the river cruise on the Thames, which comes highly recommended, and visit the Charles Dickens Museum, which was once the author’s home.

I’ve lived in three or four biographies of Dickens.

In fact, all of my family has lived in England for most of our lives, in a literary way. We are just going home for a visit.

Walt Mills can be reached at awmills@verizon.net or at P.O. Box 174, Spring Mills, PA 16875

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