Joanne Harris: My favourite places
Joanne Harris is the acclaimed author of Chocolat made into an Oscar-nominated film starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp. Since then, she has written 15 more novels, two collections of short stories and three cookbooks. Her books are now published in over 50 countries. She appears at the Oxford Literary Festival in three separate events from Friday 8 – Sunday 10 April 2016. In the meantime, here are her favourite places locally and beyond, and they’re brilliant – offering ghosts, neolithic folklore and tips on writing.
The White Horse in Uffington
I visit the prehistoric White Horse in Oxfordshire whenever I can – I live in Yorkshire so it’s usually when work takes me down this way so I’m hoping to see it soon as I’m at the Oxford Literary Festival next month. If you haven’t been, The White Horse is a very special place. There’s a particular calm, an unusual vibe here. A lot of Britain’s white horses have been recut but this one is incredibly old and retains its original shape. I used to take my daughter here. I still have pictures of me with her as a tiny baby in a sling, about a month old, and me looking like an enormous tent, standing in the eye of the White Horse.
The Parsonage, Oxford
Not to be confused with the Old Parsonage Hotel, this building is owned by the National Trust and is definitely one of my favourite buildings. When I was the writer in residence at the Oxford Literary Festival last year they put me up here, and at first I thought I was staying in a hotel. Then I realized it was an old parsonage, and that I was alone. It was the most eerie thing because it was clearly a haunted house, full of creaks and noises and wonky floors, like something out of Percy Jackson. But I love haunted houses – the open fires, period furniture, spooky portraits with eyes that follow you over the place! I wasn’t the least bit scared and in fact I wrote a ghost story while I was there – The Boy with the Borrowed Face that you’re welcome to read.
The Rollright Stones, Chipping Norton
I’m always amazed how few people seem to know about the Rollright Stones. They create a stone circle, but seems to be under the radar – everyone makes a beeline for Avebury and Stonehenge but this circle, on the Oxfordshire/Warwickshire border is absolutely fascinating. There’s nothing to to stop you going up and having a good look at them – there’s no visitor centre, no barrier. It has an ancient atmosphere, it’s a strange uncanny vibe, very creative. It’s a place filled with local folk history and interestingly there’s a little piece of folklore that says you can never count the number of stones twice in a row and get the same number – and that’s been my experience too. It’s a bit disquieting at The Rollright stones. I’ve never been able to photograph them from the inside – something always goes wrong. I’ve tried with digital, film, the lot but there’s something about the strange energy here, it’s fascinating.
The Bodleian Library
I love all the Oxford libraries, but the Bodleian is the one I keep going back to. It has such an incredible atmosphere, so when I do the Oxford Literary Festival, I like to take my laptop and soak up the silence, the wonderful light, the history but in fact anyone can visit the Bodleian – there are fantastic tours there that I’d really recommend. Because I’m travelling a lot with work, I’m good at working in other places – airport lounges, train stations, hotel rooms. But I find beautiful public libraries very inspiring. I love the British Library too – I have a flat nearby and my daughter, who’s studying at City in London, also works there from time to time.
The Duomo, Milan
I’m in Milan quite a bit because I have a publisher over there, and I love to take my teeny tiny laptop to the top of the Duomo and work. It’s just a public place, anyone can do it, and I sit in this wonderful jumble of architecture with these incredible views and work! I’ve had some of my best ideas on top of the duomo – the whole opening sequence of The Lollipop Shoes came to me up on the rooftop there!
Castle Hill, Huddesfield
Another Neolithic site, because I love them! Castle Hill is an atmospheric iron age fort with a big castle there too, with the most amazing views. It’s very close to my home, so when I go running in the morning (just 5k generally and not in winter when I’m hibernating), I run up Castle Hill. It’s very windy up there so it gets me going for the day! Again it isn’t protected so it’s fully open to the public, you can just discover things for yourself, pick up arrow heads, basically stumble over pieces of history without being forced to buy tickets or be pointed towards anything in particular.
When I went to Kerry last autumn, I saw something that piqued my curiosity on my map, so I stopped to see what it was. It turned out to be an 8th century Irish oratory, a beautifully-preserved tiny little building in the middle of nowhere about the size of a shed. Sitting outside the building was old guy playing a penny whistle under an umbrella. It was like I’d just been taken back to the 8th century again. Either that or I’d stumbled onto a film set. I don’t know the name, so you’ll have to take your chances and look at your map! [looked this up and think it’s probably the Gallarus oratory that Joanne is talking about – pictured here].
Most of my favourite places are outdoors and Malham, known for its limestone cliffs, is a wonderful place for walking. When I was a teacher I used to take school trips there. The boys I taught were from moneyed but not necessarily ‘active’ backgrounds, so we’d take them up the cliffs and to the waterfalls. There’s a climb there that’s reasonably difficult for novices where you climb up a stone ‘chimney’ behind the waterfall. There was the occasional boy I had to push or carry up. I remember pushing an overweight boy up the hill when I was 8 months pregnant – his sense of achievement at the top was a thing of beauty.
Baker Street Tube station
I love the Tube – the people watching, but also the shapes and quirks of the stations. The modern ones are less interesting to me but Baker Street is a wonderfully atmospheric tube station with all the original features, dark and oaky and intensely Sherlock Holmesy! I also like abandoned tube stations – there’s a fascinating tour of lines that are no longer in use. Some of them are untouched since the war with sandbags and newspapers and war time supplies. There also London sewer tours that are fascinating – architecturally the sewers are beautifully built, like a cathedral under the earth with these big canals running underneath them.
I love London’s roof gardens – there are so many that we don’t know about. The public roof garden I like the best is Sky Gardens – it’s absolutely beautiful up there, and you kind of don’t expect that level of greenery. I didn’t eat up there, though you can, but I did have the obligatory cocktail and it was fabulous.
Joanne Harris appears at the Oxford Literary Festival to talk about her new psychological thriller ‘Different Class’; to discuss the art of writing; and explore literature as an expression of ideas and free speech. oxfordliteraryfestival.org