Atlas of Improbable Places

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Atlas of Improbable Places

Published:

Thu, 15/09/2016 - 15:38

By:

paul
Portmeirion in Gwynedd, North Wales
Portmeirion in Gwynedd, North Wales
Published: 
15 September, 2016
by DAN CARRIER

THE phrase clone town describes the soul-destroying realisation that we are reaching a point in the UK where the only thing that separates one place from another is its name, not what it contains. 

With ubiquitous high streets infested with chain stores, charity shops and the same faux Victorian urban design of pedestrianised herringbone brickwork and cast-iron lampposts that hark back to a mythical past, you could be forgiven that the world has become a place based on the same template.

But, as Highgate-based social historian and author Travis Elborough’s latest book shows, ours is a big planet with man-made and natural oddities that are the very antithesis of clone-town sensibilities. 

Travis Elborough

Travis Elborough

For The Atlas of Improbable Places, which he has written in collaboration with illustrator and cartographer Alan Horsfield, he has scoured the planet for 51 different examples of “defiant relics of ancient cities, the freaks and wonders of nature’s own unusual masterpieces”.

Travis has compiled what reads like a traditional gazetteer.

“But claims about the growing, soul-crushing similarity of places can be overstated, as hopefully this volume illustrates,” he says. “Thankfully the world continues to be a dizzyingly diverse place.

“Because of the internet, because of travel, and because the seemingly never-ending march of the global corporation, the world can seem a pretty small place with not a lot left to explore. 

“This is an anxiety we face today. We are all looking for confirmation that the world is still difficult and odd.”

Travis was approached to compile the book by publishers and its working title was “The Atlas of Impossible Places” – but he decided that needed to be tweaked. “I thought: that would be impossible! ‘Improbable’ seemed a better fit. I wanted to make it full of quirky and individual places.”

Travis’s previous books include the history of the Routemaster bus, a consideration of Britain’s love affair with the seaside, the role of the public park in city life and a tome dedicated to the rise – and demise – of the vinyl LP. 

It meant he was moving from the everyday to the unique.

“In some ways it is the reverse of the books I have written previously. On the whole, they are about things people take for granted, but show how interesting they really are. This would take something extraordinary. In the electronic age, with the greater digital intrusion there is in our lives, we want things that are odder, weirder, quirkier to fill us with wonder – and the outlandish and the obscure still fill us with awe.”

He started by drawing up a long list of places he had heard of – and then created another layer of ideas. “I had a rough idea and for me the first place I looked at was Maryhill’s Stonehenge,” he says. 

This is essentially a concrete version of Wiltshire’s ancient stone circle, built in Washington State by road-maker Samuel Hill, who had bought 7,000 acres at the turn of the 20th century with the idea of setting up an agricultural community for Quakers. A pacifist, he thought his Stonehenge could act as a monument to those fallen in the First World War, and he constructed his obelisks from pre-formed concrete, given a lumpy coating to make them look like weathered granite. 

“I also wanted to find a good balance, reflected in things from around the world, a mix between those made by humans and the natural world,” says Travis. “I also liked the places that have a Utopian element, like Slab City in California.”

Slab City is a squatter community near San Diego on government land which is an abandoned Marine training base. Citizens live rent free in ingeniously built makeshift houses packed with plenty of public art and an outdoor music venue. 

He says the place in the natural world that most stood out was Mount Roraima, which was made famous by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s book The Lost World.

“Long before Conan Doyle fictionalised it, it already was seen as a mythical place,” says Travis. “People were scared of venturing there, and it was talked about by the likes of Drake and Raleigh. I like the fact that on the plateau there really are plants and insects that do not occur anywhere else in the world.”

And as for man-made places, he says the Welsh village of Portmeirion, designed by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis and the setting for the cult 1960s TV series The Prisoner, stands out. 

“It is just so beautiful there,” he says.“I could picture myself pretending to be Patrick McGoohan and endlessly driving around Portmeirion in a Mini Moke.”

• Atlas of Improbable Places. By Travis Elborough and Alan Horsfield, Aurum Press, £20

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