Ian McMillan: How literary tourism has become big business

Ian McMillan
Ian McMillan
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Some writers are inextricably linked to a particular location; I was in Eastwood, in Nottinghamshire, recently, and when you enter the village there’s a sign that welcomes you to “Eastwood, Birthplace of DH Lawrence”. Although, sadly, the heritage centre is shut, the museum in the house he was born in is still very much open.

There’s something about visiting a place an author wrote about that gives you a greater insight into their work and, although Lawrence lived and created all over the place, he’ll always be associated with a slice of the Midlands that mixed the rural and the urban, the mining and the farming, and as I walked to a little shop and bought a delightful egg custard I heard people talking in the same accents that Lawrence celebrated in much of his writing. I was going to tell the young woman behind the counter that she should rename the shop Buns and Lovers but that may well have been a step too far.

Of course, celebrations of writers’ birthplaces and living spaces are an essential part of what you might call the Economy of Cultural Tourism. Parts of South Tyneside have been Catherine Cookson Country for years, and John Fowles’s House in Lyme Regis has been bought and restored to its former glory by the Landmark Trust. Elizabeth Gaskell’s house, near the centre of Manchester, is now a thriving museum, and you can visit Rabbie Burns’s place in Ayr and drink in some of the atmosphere that helped the great Scottish bard to create his immortal works. You can rent the house that Ted Hughes was born in in Mytholmroyd and one of the great Yorkshire sites of literary pilgrimage is the Brontë Parsonage in Haworth where it doesn’t take too much of a leap of the imagination to picture the sisters scribbling and dreaming under the wild and angry skies.

In London there’s almost a street full (in different parts of the city, obviously) of writers’ houses and museums to explore. You can knock on the door and enters the dwellings of Keats, Dickens, Thomas Carlyle and Dr Johnson and in Swansea Dylan Thomas’s house at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive has become a place of pilgrimage for Dylanophiles like me who can’t wait to go gentle into that front parlour.

Oh, you know what I’m building up to here, don’t you? You know what I’ve got at the back of my mind? That’s right: Ian McMillan Country. The little line under the Darfield sign that says “Birthplace of Ian McMillan, The Bard of Barnsley”. There’ll be a blue plaque on the house I was born in, and maybe a McTrail that takes in the library and Low Valley School and the bridle path down to the pit. Actors would play me at different periods of my life, and I’d make the odd guest appearance like Prince Philip on a balcony.

Worth a try, don’t you think?