Yes, Virginia, there is a Poohsticks Bridge

26th September 1997 at 01:00
I and a Toad Hall. Geraldine Brennan gives credit where it's due for a great idea

A disappointing ending to a journey can be a crushing blow and Frank Barrett, one of the most respected travel editors in newspapers, is devoted to minimising the disappointment. Until now he has dealt in real places - the stakes are higher when the goal is a real-life attempt at an imaginary place which the traveller has already steeped in nostalgia.

Where Was Wonderland? A traveller's guide to the settings of classic children's books is a brilliant idea for a book, which I have often had myself but never done anything about. Barrett, being someone who deals in getting up and going rather than thinking about it, has taken 22 classics ranging from Rob Roy to Thomas the Tank Engine and given pointers for places to visit that will recreate some of the flavour of each book. The overall message is Yes, Virginia . . . there is a Poohsticks Bridge and a Toad Hall, and they are a day trip or weekend away. You might need a little longer for Antoine de Saint-Exupery's favourite hotel in Toulouse or the Anne of Green Gables trail on Prince Edward Island, Canada's smallest province.

Some destinations are the real places that inspired the writer, others are simply as close as you will get. Barrett is not too purist to take a short cut to the required experience by making use of the "heritage" legwork that has already been done. For the chapter on E Nesbit, for example, he doesn't bother with Blackheath, where the Bastable children played bandits in The Story of the Treasure Seekers, or with the author's homes in Eltham Well Hall and Kent. Instead, he raids the Lionel Jeffries film of The Railway Children to suggest a day out on the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway. After the steam-and-diesel ride to Perks's station you can follow the existing Railway Children Walk to tour the key locations. These include Howarth Parsonage, the Bront s' home but also the doctor's house in the film (from real literary landmark to imaginary one).

The advantage of Barrett's treatment is that his synopses and author biographies firmly tie the visits to the books, rather than to the tangential reflections of TV or film adaptations. Blaengawr, near Cardiff, where Nina Bawden set Carrie's War, was also the location for the BBC series but that's a coincidence.

His brief treatments of a wide range of books leaves the reader more freedom than fewer in-depth pieces. There is scope for combining several suggestions. An "Oxford and the Thames" day could take in Alice, Narnia and The Wind in the Willows, for example, or you could do London with Peter Pan and Scrooge, finishing on Primrose Hill with Pongo and Missis. The rural branch of the A Hundred and One Dalmatians trail runs into Suffolk (unmarked - you have to sniff it out all by yourself).

Fear alone is in the way - will travel sickness, traffic jams and too many Pooh worshippers in the Hundred Acre Wood (already a well documented shrine) spoil the outing? Would it be better to stay home and read the book? Barrett obviously doesn't think so, or he would never have gone anywhere.

The most alluring suggested destination is Toulouse - take along Alan Wakeman's new translation of The Little Prince, published in an enticing slim volume by Pavilion and perfect for cafe reading. Less exotic, but just as potentially enchanting, is the original Secret Garden at Frances Hodgson Burnett's former home in Rolvenden, Kent.

Or try Barrett's recipe for a Wind in the Willows experience - a picnic on the Thames near Pangbourne on a sunny day. Even if other Ratty and Mole fans have the same idea, this may be a less doomed enterprise than searching for the correct Piper at the Gates of Dawn location. And perhaps, given the right weather and company, any old river will do.

Where Was Wonderland? by Frank Barrett is published by Hamlyn, price Pounds 6.99

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