I’m starting to think about my trip to Florence, where I’m heading on the night train from Palermo, a week on Monday. A sceptic might ask, in fact, I ask myself, what will I actually learn from standing in the Baptistery in Florence, along with countless other tourists, about the first day of Francesca Caccini’s life that I won’t learn from reading books about baptism? What will I learn from gazing at the walls of the convent where Caccini spent her final years, that I won’t learn from reading books about nuns’ lives in seventeenth-century Florence? Why do I think it will be helpful to go to a concert of music for soprano in the church of Santo Stefano al Ponte?
My only answer is that it’s been invaluable in the past. Walking through the streets of London, east and north of St Paul’s, tracking down the streets where John Milton was born, where he was educated, loved, hated, persecuted, and sheltered, where he wrote, and where he died, brought home to me as nothing else could exactly how important these few square miles of city were to him. At Sherborne Castle in Dorset, being taken down dusty corridors by the wonderful librarian, far from the immaculate public areas, to a small, hexagonal turret room that was Sir Walter Ralegh’s study, allowed me to sense, fully, the conundrum that was Sir Walter – intellectual swashbuckler, screwed-up action man, practical aesthete – and started me wondering…would Bess, his wife, have used the other turret room (for Sherborne was originally designed on symmetrical principles – it was only the usurping Wingfield Digby family who added the monstrous, and unbalancing, wings), and if so, for what?
PS: The same sceptical reader who might have questioned the purpose of field trips, might also question my choice of location when the cities I need to visit are all hundreds of miles away, if not more. The answer lies clearly in my first sentence above: see http://www.theguardian.com/travel/2012/feb/12/sicily-train-messina-straits-ferry for a rose-tinted view of an endangered species.