I was first introduced to the concept of the Right Way to enter a city back in 2002. It was one of a series of interesting conversations with a trainee doctor called Tim. One tends to have a lot of conversations when travelling on the Trans-Siberian Railway, and ours ranged from boating down the Yangtze to calculating whether the world’s population could fit into Lake Baikal (if you took the water out, and made allowance for fat Americans).
We parted ways in Beijing, but he’d discussed his plans – he’d be going to Hong Kong (while we were heading onwards to Tokyo). But he wanted to enter Hong Kong harbour by boat, as that was the Right Way to enter the city. Ever since then, I’ve mulled over that concept when exploring a new city.
New York, for instance, has two Right Ways – one is by train to Grand Central, and the other is by boat via Ellis Island. I’ve done the former, and it just feels right. Certainly righter than coming in from New Jersey, which is the other way I’ve arrived there. Cape Town also has two entrances – one is by road from the North (or by boat from the North) so you get the full frontal treatment from the Table. But it’s also rather spectacular flying in, provided you land from the South – the flight path gives you a tour of False Bay.
Some cities don’t really care how you come in – they’ve grown and morphed so much that any which way feels as ornery as the rest. Joburg is like that. I think London is too, but I’ve never entered it by boat (does anybody do that anymore?) so I can’t say for sure. I think there’s a general rule about cities that have an orbital highway around them, but I’m not sure what it is yet.
The reason this comes to mind tonight is that I just found the Right Way to enter Stratford-upon-Avon. I’d previously arrived by road and by rail. Both ways are sub-optimal. The retail parks that surround the town accost you too far from the medieval centre to allow you to feel part of the old town. There’s just too much scabby newness for that.
But this evening I cycled there along the path next to the canal. It’s a 33km trip through farms, woodland, and small villages. There’s no sounds except the bleating of sheep, the odd car trying to navigate narrow country roads, and the put-putting of the occasional barge. Coasting silently with reflective water on the one side, and looking out over ye olde countryside on the other is one of the more peaceful and beautiful ways to travel.
Sure, as you approach Stratford, you do come up against expansion. There’s an office complex which looks so brand new that you can almost believe it’s an illusion hologrammed from the marketing brochure. But the factories and industrial plants (of which there are quite a few) feel original, or at least genuine. They belong there – next to the canal which was built to transport their goods to Birmingham and beyond. And then, before you know it, you’re in the centre of the village, coming up to the Avon river, and you’ve arrived at your destination. It just feels right.