Stephen McClarence: Travel Journalist

In honour of the debut of the new Alumni Voices Travel section, Stephen McClarence, a York alum, reflects on his journey as a travel journalist, inviting us to revisit some cherished destinations and memories from his career.

“When I say I’m a travel writer, people sometimes look sceptical. ‘Oh yes, another holiday, Steve?’

No, I say. It’s not a holiday. It’s work. I’m not sunning myself on a Caribbean beach or by a Mediterranean swimming pool. I’m constantly on the move, interviewing people, making notes…

The scepticism on their faces now borders on cynicism. So I generally let the matter drop.

I got into travel writing more or less by accident. Just short of 30 years ago, I was sitting in Kew Gardens with my wife Clare Jenkins, a fellow journalist.  We had visited India together a few years earlier (with backpacks: we later graduated to suitcases). We hated it: too much heat, too much dust, too many people, too much hassle. We vowed never to return.

Now, as we gazed at Kew’s exotic ferns, I said: ‘Wouldn’t it be great to go travelling again?’ Clare nodded. Next day I resigned from my job as the daily  columnist on The Star, Sheffield’s evening newspaper, and started planning a three-month trip that would take in India and a large chunk of South-East Asia. In the event, we got no further than India.

Clare persuaded BBC Radio 4 to commission half-a-dozen India features. For one, we took a rib-rattlingly bumpy coach up to the hill station of Dharamshala, where we interviewed HH the Dalai Lama. We had to wait two weeks for the official documents to come through, but then, it’s not every day you have tea with the Living God of Compassion. Frequently lapsing into seismic laughter, he was fascinated by my 1940s camera. 

Dharamshala also gave us a chance to observe dreadlocked hippies, downing banana pancakes and jingle-jangling their way through life. It was the world of Crosby, Stills, Nash and the not-so-Young.

We visited Calcutta and stayed at the time-warped Fairlawn Hotel, a post-Imperial caricature of a 1950s Blackpool boarding house serving Sunday roasts. It was presided over by Ted Smith, a mild-mannered former Army major from Northamptonshire, his wife Violet (an Armenian grande dame with an awesome coiffure), and Fifi, their white poodle, who wore a diamante collar.

We moved on to Darjeeling and stayed at the similarly time-warped Windamere Hotel, a sort of convivial Scottish hunting lodge in the Himalayas, with a misspelt name cherished for decades. As we travelled, we saw a lot of India.

Back home, I sent a travel feature ‘on spec’ to The Times and it was accepted. ‘Would you like to write more travel features for us?’ asked the travel editor. Without too much hesitation, I said yes. 

Over the next 20 years, mostly at the request of The Times or Daily Telegraph, I visited 55 countries, sometimes alone, sometimes with Clare. They included the Azores, Bhutan, Cambodia, Liechtenstein, Swaziland, Tahiti and New Zealand (admittedly only for three hours, between flights). I’m still waiting for Q, X and Y.

Naturally there’s no shortage of memories. Sleeping in the Borneo jungle with deadly spiders hovering above our mosquito nets and a python weaving its languorous way through the tree branches. 

Gazing down on a Los Angeles freeway from the Getty Center one early evening. It was packed with thousands of slow-moving cars – white headlights snaking one way, red tail-lights snaking the other. Taking trams round Basel, an under-visited city with fabulous museums and galleries. 

Being eyed up by two hungry-looking male lions on a walking safari in South Africa. They were 200 yards away. ‘It will be nice to see them pass by,’ said the safari guide with masterful understatement. ‘They might regard us as a threat. It makes it all very real, doesn’t it? They can eat 100 pounds of meat at one sitting…’

Discovering Edgar Allan Poe’s house in Pennsylvania and knocking gingerly on the front door. Footsteps echoed down the hall and a pleasantly smiling man opened the door. I said I’d been told that there wasn’t much to see inside. ‘That’s not strictly true, sir,’ he said. ‘There is absolutely nothing to see.’

And there wasn’t.  The house was completely empty: bare floorboards, no furniture, no fireplaces, walls stripped back to plaster, just the odd fragment of wallpaper: the ghost of a house.

The inexhaustible fascination of Paris. The scorching heat of summer in Madrid. Staying at London’s magnificent St Pancras Hotel in a room overlooking the platforms, and Clare shouting ‘Eurostar arriving from Paris!’ or ‘Eurostar leaving for Brussels!’ as I tried to concentrate on shaving. Travelling by train from there to Rome, where we visited the shrine of the actual St Pancras.

Perhaps the most fraught memory is our trip to Pakistan in September 2001. The  day after arriving, we drove to Islamabad airport for a flight to Lahore.  In the departure lounge, hundreds of people were staring silently at what we initially thought was a disaster movie. In fact it was live TV news coverage of an airliner plunging into the World Trade Center in New York. It was 9/11 and it didn’t seem the best time to linger in Pakistan. 

Over and above all these trips were 20-odd separate visits to India, travelling from Nagaland in the North East to  Kerala in the South. Nagaland was probably the most vivid and least-visited destination. Traditionally known as ‘Land of the Head-Hunters’, it offered hard-line foodies a challenging menu including snake kebabs, silkworm curry and steamed hornet and snail stew. Fortunately we’re vegetarian.

Wherever we went, we sought out some of the last remaining Brits in India. There was David Farnham. the last British tea planter in Assam. There was Dr Keith Sprigg, a bagpipe-playing Tibetologist who still had his Oakham School blazer in the wardrobe and lived with his wife in one room in Kalimpong, a hill station near Darjeeling. He had been the last European out of Tibet before the Chinese invasion in 1950.

We traced the final resting place of Peter and Maisie Goodbody, who inspired the characters Tusker and Lucy in Paul Scott’s Staying On. I read the book on a 36-hour train journey and wept as I reached the final page.

And then there was Captain Abbott, the last British landowner in India, who lived in a smart bungalow in Jhansi, a town best-known as a railway junction. He drove us to his farms 200 miles south and, over a dozen visits, we witnessed an everyday world of Indian life far removed from the Taj Mahal and the Golden Triangle. 

Back in Jhansi, Peggy Cantem, the octogenarian leader of the town’s Anglo-Indian community, became a friend whom we visited on every trip. Clare made a Radio Four documentary about her: Teatime at Peggy’s. It’s still on BBC Sounds and I listen to it nostalgically from time to time.

Closer to home, we’ve discovered a host of less familiar places in the UK, thanks to commissions for The Times’ ‘Weekend in…’ series. The curious model-village charm of Port Sunlight, the post-industrial grandeur of Saltaire,  the unsung fascination of Louth, the bookish bustle of Sedbergh, the strangeness of Holderness, the vigour of Dundee, the emptiness of Lindisfarne after the tourists have gone home.

Researching all these places has been made infinitely easier by the internet. Twenty years or so ago, I wrote a piece about Gladstone’s Library, a delightful place to stay at Hawarden, a village a few miles from Chester and just over the Welsh border.

The big house at Hawarden was once occupied by Sir Stephen Glynne, a reclusive baronet who had two claims to fame: he was Gladstone’s brother-in-law and he had a passion for parish churches. As the original ‘church crawler’, he visited more than 5,000 of them.

I wanted to find out about the relationship between Glynne and Gladstone, who eventually lived in the big house himself. It entailed a half-hour bus journey to the Central Library in Sheffield, where we live, and leafing through Roy Jenkins’ biography of the great Liberal Prime Minister. I found just a couple of quotes – that Glynne was ‘securely unmarried’ and that he lived at Hawarden ‘almost as a guest in his own house’.

My bus excursion occupied the best part of an afternoon. Now I can key in ‘Stephen Glynne’ + ‘Gladstone’ and I’ll find the same information in a few seconds. 

A fair bit of travel journalism today is preoccupied with beach holidays, spa treatments and ‘cool’ places and pursuits – not, perhaps, things that would have been of great interest to Gladstone. 

Travel can be about so much more than that. Some years ago, I made a solo trip to the Indian holy city of Varanasi. Late for an appointment, I needed to get back quickly to my hotel and hailed a cycle-rickshaw. The driver, Ramji, and I got talking. He said he didn’t own the rickshaw, but rented it.

I mentioned this in the piece I wrote for The Times and the travel editor suggested I go back and buy Ramji a rickshaw. It resulted in a far more interesting and valuable experience – and piece – than a week in a five-star hotel might have offered.

As I say, travel writing isn’t just ‘another holiday’.

Photographs by Stephen McClarence

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