HOW I GOT STARTED IN WRITING TRAVEL GUIDES...the Great Trips story.
Summer 1975, New York City. Business in commercial advertising photography was always slow in summer. That year at our studio it was non-existent. I was bored. I was also intrigued by the notion that cable TV could do more than just give clearer pictures of the broadcast stuff. Like having special channels for special interests. Then an idea struck me. For the past five years I had been taking Super 8 movies of our little adventures around the world, just to show our friends, relatives, and clients. Some people thought they were pretty good (or were they just being polite?). What about a documentary series on the odd places that lie just off the beaten path, but are seldom publicized?
So I decided to try my hand at roughly sketching out such a plan. To make the results just a little more professional, I bought a used Beaulieu pro camera with a huge zoom lens and a good quality Sony tape recorder with a directional mike. Then I took off for two months in England, basing myself first in London and later in Shrewsbury. Visits to a few bookstores yielded some good guides to unusual and slightly bizarre places. Armed with a BritRail Pass, I traveled by train and bus all over England and Wales in search of subjects.
One of my first themes was to explore the canals of England, which remain in use even today, two centuries after they were first created. As an example, I chose an eight-mile hike along the towpath of the Grand Union Canal to the village of Stoke Bruerne (photo, above) near Northampton, which at that time had an intriguing Waterways Museum along with a colorful old country pub. Features along the way included a cast-iron aqueduct of 1811 that carries the canal across the River Great Ouse, a two-mile long tunnel taking the waterway under a large hill, and numerous locks. As I was studying one of the latter, a narrowboat filled with attractive young ladies asked me to operate the lock for them (it took a little muscle power), then offered me a ride. This was fun! I ended the day having a meal at the canalside pub, which was filled with canal-era artifacts.
Fascinated by Britain's early railway history, I journeyed north a few hundred miles to Darlington, where it all began in 1825. At the time they were preparing to celebrate the 150th anniversary of passenger rail service, so I was in luck. Just a few miles north of there, I think it was in Bishop Auckland, there were the remains of a shed (photo, above) where the first engine for the new Stockton & Darlington Railway was built by George Stephenson. As I began filming it, some workers asked if I was from the BBC. No, I replied, I'm from American television (I wished!), doing a documentary. They invited me in and even allowed me to crawl down into the pit under which the first locomotive was serviced. They also took me to Stephenson's house, which was being restored for a visit by the Queen Mother — the very next day! Other than the workers and officials, I was probably the only non-royal to enter the premises before it opened to the public.
England is awash in haunted houses, so I thought I'd like to add one. A good choice, because it could be part of a larger little adventure in the countryside, was Ightham Mote, near the London suburb of Sevenoaks. So I devised a country walk of about seven or eight miles that ended at a nice pub before taking the train back to London. It began at one of England's grandest stately homes, the 365-room Knole House which, though dating from the 15th century, is not itself haunted as far as I know. A visit, then a stroll through a deer park followed by country lanes. From there, a footpath led through the woods to the 14th-century manor house known as Ightham Mote (photo, above), which is open to visitors. It is allegedly haunted by the ghost of Dame Dorothy Selby, who in 1605 leaked information that led to the discovery of a plot to blow up Parliament. The plotters, including Guy Fawkes, got their revenge by having her bricked up alive inside the walls. Her skeleton was discovered centuries later during renovations. Even an exorcism has failed to drive away the chill that visitors still feel today. Or so I'm told. There's a nice pub nearby called The Plough, where I recovered from the ghostly encounter.
THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION:
I couldn't resist a visit to Coalbrookdale in Shropshire, where the world's Industrial Revolution began in 1709 when Abraham Darby first smelted iron using abundant coke as a fuel rather than scarce charcoal. In 1779 Darby's grandson spanned the nearby River Severn with the world's first metal bridge, at a spot known today as Ironbridge. By the late 19th century the local mines had played out, and industry moved elsewhere. What little remained was lost in a tangle of weeds until 1968, when restoration began. By the time I arrived in 1975, much had been accomplished, and I was able to visit and film reactivated furnaces, mills, mines, canals, and workers' homes at what was now the Ironbridge Gorge Museum (photo, above).
A SUDDEN REALIZATION:
These were just a few of the little adventures I had on that trip. One thing, however, did become abundantly clear. Filming a documentary is much more difficult than I had ever imagined. It would really take a crew of at least three or four to do what I envisioned, which was financially out of the question. But there was another approach — one that I could handle alone. This led to the beginnings of Great Trips / Europe and the start of my writing/publishing career. More on that later.
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