Ian McMillan: The road less travelled leads under the table

AS regular readers will know, my dad was a sailor, sailing the seven seas for decades and going to places that I’ve never really heard of, never mind arriving in, with an overnight bag and a passport.

He used have a huge hardbacked atlas as big as a coffee table and he’d spend time in the long winter evenings of my childhood flicking through it, pointing at tiny seabound states and islands that were no more than a splat of punctuation on a page dominated by blue, and no doubt remembering times spent ashore and times spent looking out into the mist as almost mythical islets retreated into the grey.

It was his example that made me, as I grew older, want to visit absolutely everywhere in the world at least once. The lure of travel is seductive because, for me, there’s not only the possibility that you’ll experience something amazing but that somehow you’ll emerge from the trip changed, expanded, enlightened and, in some nuanced way, a better human being.

I’m not just talking about exotic places either: I’ve never been to Tibet but, between you and me, I’ve never been to Godmanchester either, and I’m sure they’ve both got possibilities.

Then, the other day, as I watched the struggles for liberation and democracy in Egypt, I thought: I wonder if I’ll ever visit Cairo when all this has settled down? Will I ever go to any of those countries along the top of Africa? Come to think of it, will I ever get to Africa? Will I ever spend half an hour in the British Antarctic Territory? Will I ever sit sipping local juice in a café in Fiji? And will I ever stroll down the main street of Godmanchester and think ‘Well, that’s Godmanchester ticked off’?

There are so many places to go, let’s face it. And no matter how young you are, there’s never enough time. Let me examine what geographers call The Godmanchester Question and what the inhabitants of Godmanchester no doubt call The Darfield Question, because there may be one or two of them that haven’t yet set foot in the jumble of streets and houses that I call The Hub.

The question is, should I begin by visiting the places in this United Kingdom that I’ve not set foot in yet? The Shetland Islands, maybe, on a bouncing ferry or a rattling plane; Par, a small town in Cornwall; Millom, an ex-steelmaking place in Cumbria; the London borough of Barnes. There’s a couple of weeks of happy travelling there, at least.

But what about if I look closer to home? I’m sorry to say that even though I’ve lived in Yorkshire for the last 55 years there are parts of the White Rose County that my shadow has never fallen on. I’ve never, as far as I can recall, been to Sowerby Bridge. I’ve not, to my shame, taken in the many delights of Staithes. I’m a Hedon virgin. I’ve never stepped off the platform at Berry Brow. Okay then, maybe that’s where I begin, with the local. Forget Tibet, give me Tingley.

Perhaps Yorkshire is too big, though: there are bits of South Yorkshire that haven’t felt my heavy footprints. I’ve never walked through the former steelmaking district of Brightside in Sheffield. I’ve not stopped off in bits of Bentley near Doncaster to take the air, and there are streets in central Rotherham I’ve never strolled along.

Let’s face it: there are bits of Barnsley I’ve not arrived in breathless with anticipation. Look at all those new estates with daft names like Rebellion and Breathe, the ones that are too new even for SatNavs; they’re too new for me, so far. I’ve never looked up at the trees in Wombwell Wood or down at the waters of Bolton Brick Ponds.

Some world traveller I am. There are bits of my own backyard I’ve not experienced. I’m sure, because I’m not a gardener, that I’ve never leaned over the hedge at the top of our front garden, and I’ve lived in the house for nearly a quarter of a century. I know that’s technically the frontyard – not the backyard – but you get my drift. Never mind the Isles of Scilly, what about that island of leaves at the bottom of the garden?

One of the reasons you travel, of course, is for the scenery, the altered perspectives of a world that seems shiny and new because its shiny and new to you. I’m writing this in the back room sitting at a white fold-up table and it strikes me that I’ve never looked at the room from under the new dining table, the one I wrote about the other week. So I think I’ll just get on the carpet and creep across the floor and sit under the table, just to see what the room looks like.

I’m my father’s son. For him, the islet through the mist; for me, the new perspective of the room from under the table. We’re all travellers, in our own way.