This the ninth my occasional series of “Books on the Horizon” – travelogues I dream of researching and writing, though probably never will. My “Books on the Horizon” are an exercise in creativity, idle whimsy and – through any reactions I get – testing the water.
Bypassed: Travels to the forgotten victims of success
THE ELEVATOR PITCH
A slightly melancholic set of journeys to places that have been the forgotten victims of otherwise unarguably good progress; a glimpse at communities that used to matter but now no longer do.
THE “OVER A DRINK” PITCH
One of my favourite travel-related follows on Twitter is the Berlin-based (but English language) magazine hidden europe. Although I’ve never got round to subscribing to its paper version (there’s an idea for you for my next birthday, dear reader), the Twitter account, email newsletter and article extracts on its website are all beautifully and evocatively written. At hidden europe’s core is a desire to uncover stories from lesser-known and lesser-visited parts of Europe.
Incidentally, I’ll let you into a wee secret – I almost pitched this article I wrote about Armenia to hidden europe, but I was immensely busy at the time and couldn’t afford to spend time on the process (plus, I selfishly wanted it up on my website alongside and at the same time as my other Armenia articles). Maybe I’ll pitch something else in the future.
Anyway, last year, one of hidden europe’s tweets particularly caught my eye:
Interesting case of a community which lost out in German unification 25 years ago this autumn: https://t.co/imr2ww5KIV Schnackenburg
— hidden europe (@hiddenEurope) November 16, 2015
The tweet linked to a short piece about the German town of Schnackenburg, which found itself after Germany’s post-war partition to be an important, if strange, customs post. While you can read the article for the full story, it ends with a poignant reflection on how, as a result of German unification, the town’s strategic importance has disappeared.
Of course, on balance it is a good development. No reasonable person would say that German reunification was a bad thing, and when overwhelmingly positive processes occur, they happen despite any tiny negatives, foreseen or otherwise. I wonder if even the good folk of Schnackenburg would not have sacrificed reunification for their own narrow self-interest.
And the train of thought made me wonder about similar places – towns, villages or regions who were the acceptable collateral damage in unquestionably positive developments.
The one obvious example that sprung to my mind was the Skye village of Kyleakin, which features on my crudely thrown together cover (above). Prior to the opening of the Skye Bridge in 1995, the principal route from the mainland of Scotland to Skye was a short, regular ferry journey from Kyle of Lochalsh, on the coast of Wester Ross and the terminus of the famous Kyle train line, to the village of Kyleakin which faced it across the water.
With occasional queues for the boat, it was often worth getting out of the car to explore whichever departure point you were at. Kyle had much to appeal, but Kyleakin, with its dramatic views across to the mountains of the mainland, a few interesting shops, and the picturesque ruins of Castle Moil, always felt like the nicer of the two.
But when the bridge came, Kyleakin lost out. Kyle remained en route, and you can still easily stop there without diverting too far from the main road. But when you head west over the bridge to Skye, pretty much every vehicle turns right at the first roundabout, taking you northwards along the main road through Skye. Hardly anyone these days turns left to the dead end that is Kyleakin.
It’s still a pretty village well worth a detour, and the views of the mainland are now complemented by the imposing arc that is the bridge. But few take the time, and the town lies forgotten and bypassed, in the shadow of the bridge and its constant stream of traffic that ignores that little village down below.
One other example from a Scottish island is worth mentioning. In 2009 I visited the Shetland island of Unst, right up at the top of Britain. During the Cold War this was an important strategic location, and RAF Saxa Vord was part of a chain of radar stations designed to watch out for Soviet incursions from the direction of the Arctic. Following the end of the Cold War, the base was closed down, and the military buildings and housing are left there, concrete testaments to a past era that have presented the community with a few socio-economic challenges.
Opportunities to use the space have risen too, but I learned that the people of Unst do feel a little neglected by the authorities. For instance, appeals for a tunnel to better connect them southwards as compensation for the loss of the military’s economic boost, have been rejected thus far.
I am sure there are more examples of such places that have been bypassed in this way.
And it’s important to note that I am not referring specifically to literal, physical bypasses – roads that keep traffic out of once clogged town centres, but also have led to a decline in attention, casual visitors, and money. Albeit that Kyleakin’s bypassing by the bridge is certainly an example of this. In most examples of bypasses (for instance, a ring round round a town), many support the road building, but such projects are environmentally destructive according to others – so don’t pass my test of being a clear universal good.
And nor am I thinking about places that have lost their economic heart, through for instance the decline (planned or otherwise) of existing industries. Deindustrialisation may usually make sense as part of the long term march to a greener or more mixed economy, but is devastating in the short term to certain communities.
So I’m bypassing – if you will – places which have been the victims of controversial developments, where it is at least arguable whether the change was a good or bad one. Rather, I’m thinking here about places where the change or event was by any reasonable measure a beneficial one; places sacrificed for a universally accepted gain.
And nor, thirdly, am I including places that have been completely destroyed or obliterated, for instance by total flooding, desertification, forced clearance or natural disaster. This is not a tour of ghost towns or ruins, interesting though that could be. This is about the places that survived.
I confess few other clear examples spring to mind, but there must be some. Communities bisected or overlooked by a widely desired and vital transport link. Once bustling border towns in pre-Schengen Europe. Old villages now overshadowed by larger, much-needed housing developments. Places whose core industries were unquestionably damaging to the wider area and needed to be wound down. Settlements part flooded or significantly altered, with no conceivable alternative, to provide reservoirs that serve vast areas with water.
Once loved, now neglected, these might be very nearly ghost towns, settlements that were overlooked in the face of progress, lost to the pages of history, but still somehow carrying on, there only for those who never left or the few who intentionally seek it out.
The book will probably be a poignant one, perhaps sad and melancholic in tone, but hopefully touching on a positive message – that, despite the unrelenting march of progress and the unanswerable cause of the wider good, these bypassed places still exist, still continue and no doubt have a lingering pride and fortitude to show for it.
My instinct is that I’m probably unqualified to do this book. You’d probably want this book to be written by someone with a good grounding in sociology, community development or economics; though on the other hand you don’t want it to be too dry or academic a book.
I enjoy seeking out unusual locations that defy the world around them, and am attracted to lesser known and often overlooked places. This is a great thread around which to gather such a set of places.
WHAT WOULD I BE MOST HOPEFUL OF?
At its best this book will be a haunting tribute to lost and forgotten communities around the world, and hopefully a celebration of stories that don’t often get written. I hope that the book would take me to places I’d never heard of, perhaps even countries I’d not think of visiting, and open my eyes to some real stories that are overlooked by most.
WHAT WOULD I BE MOST FEARFUL OF?
The biggest problem I can think of is not being able to identify enough locations that fit the bill. There could be a lot of research firstly to identify them but secondly to get a good prior sense of the dynamics that have led to their (perhaps literal, but more likely metaphorical) bypassing.
I’d also worry slightly about getting sucked into the places and not being able to focus my mind on the common thread of the circumstances that led to their situation.
WHAT WOULD I NEED TO WRITE THIS BOOK?
Firstly, I’d need a lot of time and patience to do the research. I suspect that I’d need to balance the need for depth – spending lots of time in each destination, and exploring in detail how and why they exist in the way they do – with the need for diversity – I couldn’t just visit two or three places. At a rough stab, this book would probably need at least half a dozen subjects to make it really interesting.
Secondly, the old questions of time and money! One advantage of this book is that it is a dividable itinerary. Each trip could, if practicalities required, be a standalone journey, punctuated by narrative about my research. Many locations might be in Europe and thus within easy reach.
At a very back-of-the-envelope estimate, I’d guess this book would require at least a month or so on the road in total, and that probably represents a thousand pounds or two, though a bit more if compelling destinations are far beyond Europe.
HOW LIKELY AM I TO WRITE IT?
Not very. This is probably one of my best thought out concepts, and it has a strong heart and soul to it. So on one level it is among the books in this series that I’d most like to do.
I can’t imagine taking it seriously, however, without a handful more potential destinations, and I can’t foresee being motivated enough at this stage to do the research that would be required to identify them. Indeed, I am not even sure where I would start.
What do you think? Is this a book you’d like to read? Let me know in the comments below. And read the rest of my series of Books on the Horizon here.