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A love affair with a British road

Forty-five years ago my wife and I hitch-hiked through the south of England. I was studying English language and literature and my wife Rita history of art. We are Dutch and live the Netherlands. As long as we went to Britain on holiday I was happy and my wife could choose exactly where. That first time she chose London and Winchester, the present and the former capital of the country. As we were not married yet our parents made us promise to stay only at youth hostels where they have different dormitories for boys and girls. We kept our promise faithfully. As to why I still have my doubts, to be honest.

Billingshurst Green with bicycles

Hitch-hiking was considered safe in those days and it proved fairly easy: the English people were friendly. This was a bit of a surprise to us, for we had assumed that they were all standoffish and aloof. But a bigger eye-opener was the landscape. Thinking of England (at the time when there were only few television images available) we had thought of dismal Coronation Street cities and grey, misty and flattish countryside. But England was lushly green and hilly and the roads were charmingly curvaceous and undulating.

At least, they were when, after a few satisfying and tiring but confusing days of London (traffic on the wrong side of the streets!), we headed south and then west in the direction of Winchester. A few days later a lorry picked us up at Petersfield along the A272 and the driver left us in the lurch short of our destination, saying that it was only a few miles walking. The sun was shining so we walked with our rucksack. We climbed hill after hill until finally, dog-tired, we reached the youth hostel. We absolutely hated that driver, but it was then that the seed was sown for my love of the A272. Winchester had a beautiful youth hostel then, by the way. In the old watermill. The boys were supposed to wash in the swift river underneath it.

A 272 book - now in print

A 272 book - now in print

And so, with all these experiences, our love for the country was born and we have been coming back to it every year. Later on, when we had our own car, we developed theme holidays for visits, like all the cathedrals, Henry Moore sculptures, hill figures, industrial archeology, exceptional architecture and especially follies. Over the years we regularly came across the A272 of course and when I looked at it on the maps, it struck me how it goes on all the time running east-west, or for that matter west-east. It wraps itself round the fifty-first degree of latitude in a most sensuous manner. For ninety miles, a tenacious whole-hogger, for a road with three digits, as the general rule is: the longer the road, the shorter its name. I delighted in driving on the A272 every time and so the taste for it increased. But the real reason why I have come to love this road is that to me it represents England. Everything we love about England we can find along this road. It’s England’s epitome. The villages, the towns, the history, the people and their eccentricities, the architecture, the pubs, trees, cricket pitches, follies, fields and woods and in general the landscape as it runs between the South Downs and the North Downs. Everything about it makes it a very attractive holiday country.

I had a full job as a teacher of English and I promised myself that if I ever had more time on my hands I would try and write a book about this road. And then in the early 1990s it happened: I changed jobs to become a reviewer of books and my time was my own. In the spring of 1995 we went along the road to do a feasibility study. Was it indeed possible to write a book about it? Well, a good month later I could be observed cycling all along the A272 in order to talk to people, gather books, brochures, newspaper articles and what not. Any material I could lay my hands on. In the summer we went again by car and a month or more was also spent in this way. Winter was devoted to going through all the stuff, writing to all the parish councils and more official authorities for information. One thing led to another and it took three more years to put everything together on paper. Finally there was one year to polish the text and approaching possible publishers. During these years we spent all our holidays – and there were many – in the A272 area for research purposes. Lovely, we couldn’t get enough. I decided to call the book A272, An Ode to a Road.

As I wanted my readers to follow the road with the book in the glove compartment of their car (or in their imagination if they are armchair travellers), it seemed best to me to have the interesting things in the neighbourhood on one page, so I designed an intricate layout. Basically there are three bands of text on the pages, one in the middle about the road itself, one above it for the area north of the road, up to six or seven miles and one below it for the area south of the road, also about ten kilometres. In the margins are special notes on anything interesting on that page (or rather spread). Plus the book is full of colour pictures that we took ourselves (and a few drawings by Rita). In between the chapters are essays about my own experiences along the road. Brilliant: I could write whatever I wanted, regardless of the readers’ age or sex or sense of humour. It was my book and at that stage I thought: if it doesn’t get published I will make one beautiful copy for my bookcase and one to lend to friends and that will be that. I have had my fun creating this Ode to a Road. But I still wanted to do my best to get it on the market of course.

In order to give the publishers an idea of what I had in mind as far as the design was concerned, I put a few pages together and sent these as samples off with the question: would they please consider bringing it out? Most publishers, if they answered at all, thought the idea was crazy and saw no future for the book, but finally I found a very courageous man who not only thought it mad but also fell in love with the unique layout. He and his staff gave my design lively and playful appearance and in the end my idea of writing a book about a road looked like a serious publication. But pretty unique in a fun-loving way. The Pallas Athene publishing firm went out on a limb and took a tremendous risk having five thousand books printed. For a cultural guide-book to only a relatively small part of England this was an enormous figure.

But they needn’t have worried. A few weeks after it first came out my wife Rita and I went over to England for a publicity tour. A clever press release from a friend of the publisher’s had paved the way. We began quite innocuously by signing books here and there, but soon the local newspapers and magazines got interested and in a few days radio programmes and local television stations wanted an interview with this crazy Dutchman who had written a madcap book, about a road of all possible subjects. Weird. A day later the national newspapers had picked it up. Front-page articles, sometimes with photographs, appeared, praising the book sky-high, recommending its bizarre subject-matter, the grotesque way it was put together, its poetical passages, its fun, its insights, its thoroughness and in short, its love for the country by a foreigner. I was quickly declared ‘media-star of the day’ and ended up in national Breakfast programmes and being interviewed by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight. After that I told the publisher I wanted to flee the country. Haha. That week the book was sold out. It was quite a sensation. The popular radio show Woman’s Hour repeated their humorous interview with Rita a few times and that also contributed greatly to the sales of the following reprints of the Ode to a Road and to the popularity of the A272, I’m afraid.

Cheeseford Head crop circle

Cheeseford Head crop circle

For a few years people kept buying the book and we kept coming back to the area of the road. We noticed that certain things had changed along the road, for better or for worse, since our first investigations in 1995. England is a most conservative country, fortunately, but shops change hands, pubs change breweries, villages get bypasses and celebrated the millennium, new estates are built and others get sold et cetera, so in 2004 we decided to bring out a fresh and enlarged edition of the book. Minor alterations could still be worked into the text, but I couldn’t write new paragraphs in the existing layout without spoiling the delicate balance of notes, other running text and photographs on the pages, so we decided to tack on a series of addenda at the end of the book. This time we left the layout of the text and photographs of this new Addenda section to the publisher who had proven his worth the first time round. He brought out the fifth, revised printing with a white sticker on the cover announcing that this was an expanded edition. Rita and I went round in a modest way to boost sales again, offering the book to contributors, who had sent in fresh information.

Initially I had asked for comments, and had got more than a hundred letters from readers in reply. The book seemed to have touched a nerve. And it gave me tremendous pleasure reading these letters. Indeed I was quite moved by some of them. One correspondent wrote that she had only one quibble: she loved the book and now she had to buy four more copies, one for a friend and three for her sons. It also sparked off some unexpected side-effects. A series of walks was inspired by the area (we actually joined one of the walks and could hardly keep up) and a CD with folk music was compiled in its honour (Between the Downs, by The Sticks). And we met and made friends with lots of people. All wonderful experiences. Everything making us feel even more in love with the country.

A272, An Ode to a Road was sold out during a few years. In 2010 we decided on another major tour of checking, updating and new investigations in an attempt to expand it to 272 pages, as befits a book called A272. So now it is 272 pages. I wrote the text for the enlarged Addenda section, Rita put it all together and wrote a new Index for it. She fully deserved to get her name on the cover. Together we went on a new publicity tour, less hectic than the first time round, eleven years ago, but with the same enthusiasm and love as before. It’s a proper, enduring love affair.

Buy the book from Amazon.

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