Friday, June 25, 2010


I came across an interesting book while doing research today. It's called British Highways And Byways From A Motor Car by the American travel writer Thomas D. Murphy (1866--1928). It was written in 1908, when motor cars were still something of a novelty and not exactly the most practical of vehicles, but it's a well-written and interesting travelogue nonetheless. He covers a quite astonishing amount of ground considering the limitations of the technology and shittyness of the roads. His main problem, even in the wilds of scotland, was not mechanical issues, or poor roads, but the weather. Of which he notes

There is little danger of being supplied with too many clothes and wraps when motoring in Britain. There were very few days during our entire summer's tour when one could dispense with cloaks and overcoats.

For the most part, his descriptions conjure up an image of an England very similar to the one I live in now, occasionally though there's a really jarring reference to something that is very much not there anymore.

His description of canterbury, for example, is pretty hard to distinguish from a description of the city today. It took him longer to get there from london, obviously, but the route the road takes hasn't changed a great deal since Roman times. The city, equally, is fairly unchanged -- although it is a strange thing when he refers to victorian edifices as recent additions to the city.

By comparison, the description of Coventry, which I've copied below, is a eerie glimpse of a city that hasn't existed for a long time.

Coventry, with its odd buildings and narrow, crowded streets, reminded Nathaniel Hawthorne of Boston—not the old English Boston, but its big namesake in America. Many parts of the city are indeed quaint and ancient, the finest of the older buildings dating from about the year 1400; but these form only a nucleus for the more modern city which has grown up around them. Coventry now has a population of about seventy-five thousand, and still maintains its old-time reputation as an important manufacturing center. Once it was famed for its silks, ribbons and watches, but this trade was lost to the French and Swiss—some say for lack of a protective tariff. Now cycles and motor cars are the principal products; and we saw several of the famous Daimler cars, made here, being tested on the streets.


Other things I've learned today include what must be one of the most strangely named streets in Britain (up there with Whip Ma Whop Ma Gate in York), "Bullet Loan" in Kelso, Scotland.