My awfully big adventure
With no corner of the world left unexplored, can the philosophy of 'experimental tourism' add spice to our travels? Clare Rudebeck followed its rules and went in search of Arcadia (in Kent)
Wednesday 09 February 2005
The world has run out of new destinations. We've been everywhere. Explorers are out of a job. Even Sir Ranulph Fiennes admits that there's nowhere new to go. The
Rough Guide and
Lonely Planet have only succeeded in making our planet less rough and less lonely. Nowadays, even isolated tribal societies have BBC documentary teams attached to them.
The world has run out of new destinations. We've been everywhere. Explorers are out of a job. Even Sir Ranulph Fiennes admits that there's nowhere new to go. The Rough Guide and Lonely Planet have only succeeded in making our planet less rough and less lonely. Nowadays, even isolated tribal societies have BBC documentary teams attached to them.
How do you find adventure in such a world? What is a modern-day Dr Livingstone like myself to do? I've visited lost cities in the Central American jungle - only to bump into an old friend I didn't want to see.
Strangely, the answer could lie with Lonely Planet. This spring, the budget-travel bible is publishing its Guide to Experimental Travel, a concept thought up in 1990 by the book's co-author, Joel Henry. The book, described as "part philosophy, part travel-guide", aims to help us to regain our sense of adventure by changing the way we travel. It is not the destination, but the journey, that is important.
The experimental traveller would not dream of seeing the "sights" or reading a guidebook, and never goes from A to B. Instead, travel is governed by pre-decided - often pretty silly - parameters, ensuring that the tourist stays off the beaten track.
Henry's suggestions for seeing the world in a new light include: alphatourism (identifying the first and last streets in a city's A-Z, drawing a straight line between the two and walking the route); nyctalotourism (arriving at twilight, looking around all night and leaving before dawn); and uxoritourism (going on a trip organised by your wife).
Could this formalised pratting-around be the modern equivalent of Captain Scott's trek to the South Pole? Could it restore my faith in travel's ability to broaden, and occasionally blow, the mind? I decide to put this new philosophy to the test - perhaps the ultimate test - by following Henry's teachings for a day to explore the county where I was born and brought up - Sussex.
THE DAY dawns foggy and a bit chilly. But, like Shackleton before me, I'm not dissuaded by a little bad weather. My first task is to choose a mode of travel. Henry, a Frenchman, is particularly fond of travel by wordplay. There's melanotourism, which involves only visiting places with black in the title (Blackpool, Black Mountains, Blackfriars etc) and lawn tourism, which involves visiting places with "garden" in the title (Covent, Kew, Madison Square etc).
But these sound rather dull and, in any case, would involve leaving Sussex. So I decide to invent my own form of experimental travel and, of course, give it a silly name: transcendentourism. This will involve going from Devil's Dyke to Arcadia. The former is a valley and popular picnic spot just outside Brighton in East Sussex. The latter, about 40 miles away, is a very small village just outside Tenterden in Kent. Will I be in a state of travel-induced bliss by the time I reach Arcadia?
At Devil's Dyke (where it's even foggier and wetter), I try out one of Henry's other ideas. Cecitourism involves blindfolding yourself and letting a trusted companion walk you around, describing what you're missing out on. My guide will be my father, whose views on travel can be summed up as: "Why go abroad when there are so many interesting English churches to visit?"
We proceed along a path. "Can you hear that noise?" asks my father. "It's the traffic on the M23." "Is there any wildlife?" I inquire, hopefully. "One magpie," reports my father. "And a man in a fluorescent yellow top. Watch out for the rabbit hole."
We turn and head down. "There are some trees, including oaks, on the other side," says my father. But what does it all look like? "It looks like a blank sheet of paper, or an uncultivated field," he says.
Taking off my blindfold, I am pleasantly surprised. The Dyke looks rather attractive tinged with mist, and the views over Sussex, although taking in the M23, are stunning. Cecitourism has been a great success. My father's descriptions left my expectations so low that I couldn't fail to be enchanted. The holiday snaps I took while blindfolded aren't up to much, however.
My father soon falls by the wayside, muttering about "better things to do". Reflecting that adventure is not for the faint-hearted, I drive on into Sussex, through dull villages I've never had reason to visit, and which I'll never visit again. I remind myself that experimental travellers never deviate from the chosen path, however deviant it might be.
About 20 miles further on, I drive past Bodiam Castle, a 14th-century fortification. This, of course, is a conventional tourist attraction, but experimental tourists are permitted to visit such places, as long as they indulge in contretourism. This involves turning your back on the monument in question and taking a photograph of the view in the opposite direction.
Arriving at Bodiam, I notice that it is shut for the winter; an occupational hazard for the experimental traveller. There will be no tea and cakes for me. However, I suspect these were in short supply on Shackleton's voyages as well. And the lack of refreshment does not stop me from clambering up to the moat's edge, turning my back on the castle and taking a photo of an air-raid shelter, an oak tree and the car park.
While this photo is unlikely to provoke envy among my friends when I return from my travels, I certainly amuse two elderly gentlemen taking an afternoon stroll. I consider explaining to these bystanders that I have embarked on a challenge no less daring than those undertaken by the great adventurers of the 19th century, but I fear they may not understand.
Driving on towards Tenterden, I consider the progress made so far on my pilgrimage to Arcadia. On one hand, I have driven 30 miles through nondescript Sussex villages on a cold, wintry day for no good reason. On the other, I feel very cheerful about this. My photos may be among the least exciting ever taken, but they are unique. And it is extremely unlikely that anyone will say to me when I get back: "Oh yeah, we went there three years ago, but it's not a patch on Cuba." However, I am not convinced that I have yet experienced a level of excitement akin to Livingstone's when he first set eyes on Victoria Falls.
I arrive in Tenterden and launch myself into my latest experiment: alternativetourism. This involves taking the first right, then the first left, then the first right, then the first left, and so on until you end up in the sea or against a wall or get bored.
Tenterden is a picturesque town with a nice line in antique shops, a steam railway and a museum. I hope that some of these attractions will turn out to be on my route through the town. I park the car and, on foot, take the first right. This road zigzags behind the houses on the high street and takes in a building site before coming out in the Tesco car park. After pausing to capture this moment on camera, I proceed through the car park and take the first left. This takes me, promisingly, back down to the high street and to within a few metres of a cosy-looking tearoom. Now, this is a test of my commitment to experimental tourism. Many might have fallen by the wayside at this moment and stuffed their faces with toasted teacakes. I, however, resist temptation, take the first right and end up in a dead-end next to the public toilets.
Dusk is falling as I head out of Tenterden. According to my map, Arcadia should be on the left just after I turn off at a major junction. As I make the turn, my spirits soar: it must be somewhere along this small, unexceptional country lane. I drive for a few miles and find nothing. I drive back - nothing. I reflect that all pilgrims must struggle to reach their final destination, so I stop at a garden centre to ask for directions. "I'm looking for a village called Arcadia. Do you know where it is?" I ask the only person around. "Never heard of it," he says.
A few miles further up the road, I see more signs of life: a caravan park. Walking into the park's office, I feel sure Arcadia is now within my grasp. "Never heard of it," mutters the local woman behind the desk. I climb back into my car, reverse out of the caravan park and drive the 40 miles home.
Once back, I recount my adventures to my father. I show him my photos: the view of the car park at Bodiam, the view of the car park at Tenterden and the view of the caravan park where Arcadia was supposed to be. He's less than impressed, mentioning that I'd have done better to explore the many interesting churches along the way.
It's not the view that's important, I stress, it's the sense that no one has ever travelled this route before, or is likely to do so again. It's the sense of freedom you get from spending a day on what anyone else might consider a pointless journey. I'll certainly travel experimentally again, but next time, I might do it in Rome or Rajasthan.
The elusive Arcadia lies north of Tenterden, close to the junction of the A262 and A28. The name is no longer in use, but still appears on some maps
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