The beauty of reading a good book is that it can whisk you off to foreign lands and lead you on adventures you couldn’t experience in real life. You can live a life of magic or romance. Live on the high seas or float among the vast abyss of outer space. Books allow you to live outside your reality and lose yourself to your imagination. When you read a book based on an actual location, you might be tempted to visit and see how accurate your imaginings were. But could it be comparable to what most of us have experienced when watching a movie that’s based on a book? Will it live up to our expectations or let us down?
I recently read a rather wonderful book back in the long balmy days of summer that was not only written by a local author but based on a local tourist spot. The book was called The Cosy Canal Boat Dream by Christie Barlow. And it set a lovely scene, so I decided to go see the setting in person. But which would win out in a battle of expectations vs. reality?
The book is easy and light reading, the sort you can lose yourself in without too much effort. It’s a lovely story about the lives and loves of a small community that lives on canal boats based in a marina. The location sounded idyllic, and I could easily have packed up the house and bought a canal boat by the end of the book. The leading lady, despite suffering heartbreak, obviously finds her Prince Charming eventually. And yes, I guess they all live happily ever after, bobbing about on the (ocean) wave.
So in my mind’s eye, I had a picture of what the book location looked like. Cute, small, with a handful of beautiful canal boats, a deli serving delicious cakes and freshly brewed coffee, and the obligatory bar for the stronger drink. The boat owners would be painting their barges with pots of bright colors, each with a sleeping cat or cute Labrador sitting on the deck. And they’d offer a cheery greeting and a friendly wave as I walked by. My imagination is a wonderful place to live!
So the only way for me to see if my own cozy canal boat dream was anywhere near the real thing was to visit the place it was (allegedly) based on. And despite having many gloriously hot summer days to choose from, I finally went (along with Dad and the dog, Harley) on a fresh but sunny Autumn day.
Barton Marina, just outside Lichfield, is delightful without a doubt. But oh my, small and cute, it is not! The first thing that struck me was how much bigger and more commercial it was than on the pages of my kindle. The car park was rammed. The first pub had people spilling out onto the patio and the walkway below. At least all were clutching pints of lager and glasses of wine and enjoying the late afternoon bit of sun.
We meandered past — well, more like I was dragged as Harley sniffed and snaffled at everything — expensive-looking boutiques, a delightful deli, and a handful of eateries, all tempting us in with scrummy-sounding menus. We ambled along, away from the crowds and around the Barton Marina, admiring the boats all lined up like soldiers. No sleeping cats, no cheery waves from the owners, no one painting pink lettering on the side of their barge. Oh.
And therein lies the problem. As mentioned at the beginning of the article, this is comparable to watching a movie based on a favorite book. It rarely lives up to our expectations. The hero is often not as handsome as we’d dreamed, and the setting is often far off from what we’d pictured. Perhaps the heroine we loved so much is played by an actress who just doesn’t fit our mental image. It can be disappointing, for sure.
When you visit a location you have created in your head; you expect it to look and feel a certain way. Now don’t get me wrong, Barton Marina is beyond gorgeous; it really is. But was it what I was expecting? I’m not sure. Maybe I should visit again and re-read the book while I’m there. If I put myself back into the book, perhaps I will see it through the eyes of my imagination. Maybe I’ll make a date with myself and do that on a hot summer day next year… Or just maybe some things are best left to your imagination?