‘It’s a small world’ wrote the Sherman brothers back in 1962, and little did they know how small our world would really become. Theirs was a message of unity for a Walt Disney ride, and indeed, the 60s were the turning point in air travel, making places that had once seemed a distant dream for the average Joe possible to fly to in a matter of hours. Now, in the modern advent of budget flights and package holidays, it’s easy to forget that distant cultures, mountains and beaches have not always been on our doorstep. When it takes days, weeks or months to reach your destination, the journey to get there becomes significant, part of the experience, and sometimes the reward itself.
The rise of air travel has meant that travelling by boat has changed from the cheapest way to travel into becoming a sort of romantic indulgence. Who hasn’t glimpsed a houseboat and had passing dreams of living footloose and anchor free sailing the seven seas? (Or is that just me?) Richard Goodwin took his dream a little further than most of us have. Observing the barges from the Pont des Arts in Paris sparks a strong desire to join their nomadic lifestyle. And so he buys Leontyne – or Leo to her friends – an ancient, rusty barge that had been plying the Thames for over sixty years. After patching her up and roping in some wise men of the rivers, Richard plans an epic journey; one that will take him across the stormy channel, along beautiful rivers and canals, through river cities and tiny villages, from London, all the way to Vienna. Leontyne: By barge from London to Vienna is full of colourful characters met along the way, the amusing trials and tribulations of a cantankerous boat and the rich culture of the countries Goodwin passes through. Leontyne was also a television series.
As for Goodwin and his epiphany watching the barges in Paris, the first sighting of Guadeloupe proved a pivotal moment for Alec Waugh. When he first saw the Island on a trip round the world in 1926 he was so captivated that fifteen months later he returned for a long stay at Martinique, and it was the beginning of a lifelong interest in these fascinating islands that were to provide him with the material for many books and articles. Originally published in 1949, The Sugar Islands draws a detailed picture of the colourful life of the Caribbean islands. He tells the story of a 17th-century Frenchman who joined the famous pirates of Tortugja and the history of the long bloodbath that preceded the declaration of independence of Haiti, the Black Republic. Alongside the travel writing are character sketches, including three stories of ‘black magic,’ Waugh looks at the individual charm and interest of each of the islands: Montserrat, Barbados, Anguilla, Trinidad, St. Vincent, Tortola, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Saba, Antigua, Dominica and Puerto Rico.
In the era that Alec Waugh was making his way through the Caribbean, Sacheverell Sitwell was exploring a very different part of the world. When Roumanian Journey (now known as Romania) was first published in 1938, reading about foreign cultures was the only way ordinary people could experience life outside of their own ‘small world’, not only because it was unaffordable, but because there was a war looming. When Sitwell made his journey in the 1930s, Bucharest was still eight days overland from London. His four-week trip brings him into contact with longhaired gypsies at country fairs as well as the aristocracy in their medieval castles. The natural richness and variety of the landscape – from Transylvania to the Wallachian plains, the Carpathian peaks to the Danube Delta – delight him, as does the diversity of humanity he encounters, while his deep knowledge of European art and architecture makes him the ideal guide to the paintings, frescos, and buildings of Roumania.
Perhaps we do have something in common now with Sitwell’s readers. Although more of us than ever before might be able to afford hopping on a plane to pretty much anywhere in the world our whimsy leads us, the one thing we are not rich on is time. Who can afford to take a month leisurely exploring Romania or plying the waterways of Europe? For those of us that can only dream of such things, we’ll still have to be content with armchair travelling, living vicariously through the likes of Goodwin, Waugh and Sitwell.