Review of “111 Dark Places in England That You Shouldn’t Miss” by Philip R. Stone
(Cologne: Emons, 2021), reviewed October 2022
[Note: I have to admit that I’d have good reasons for axes to grind here – because of two damning reviews by the same author of my own book
) – but I’ve decided not to stoop to such a low level and pen a “revenge review”. Instead I've tried to stick to my usual review standards and be as balanced and objective as I can be, without saying I wouldn’t be critical (I always am, in all of my reviews). I hope I have achieved that – judge for yourself.]
When I first came across the title of this book my eyebrows were raised: a full 111 dark-tourism sites in England alone?!? This website
covers only 23 (plus several more for the rest of the UK) and I am aware of about a dozen more I haven’t yet covered, but I’d never be able to list 111. Therefore I quickly suspected that this high number must have to do with the underlying definition of dark tourism, and indeed there are many versions of that, some much broader than mine. So I presumed that the author must be including sites that in my definition of dark tourism would probably not qualify.
And indeed, unlike me, who follows the Lennon/Foley
school of thought that situates dark tourism in modernity, beginning in the late 19th century, Stone includes plenty of sites associated with chapters of history that go back much further, even into prehistory. Also included are many very small sites, often just a single tombstone, monument or mere plaque. A few are even non-sites, where there is a bit of dark history, but nothing for any visitor to actually see (e.g. the former London Necropolis Railway or the empty address where the demolished house of serial killers Fred and Rose West used to stand, where today there is not even a plaque or anything).
Stone also includes many a site where the dark aspects are more in the realm of folklore, mythology and the paranormal (excluded on this website for reasons explained here
). Readers who are interested in such things will find plenty to marvel at in this book. I, however, was left with a rather thinner takeaway when I had finished reading it. Out of the 111 places covered in this book, I have already visited about a dozen (and they have entries on this website, e.g.: IWM North
, Bletchley Park
, Hack Green
& Kelvedon Hatch
, Alnwick Poison Garden
, etc.). And then there are around another dozen sites I indeed hadn’t yet known about and that I would now put on my travel wish list as DT sites I should visit (for example, the National Justice Museum, Eden POW camp, or the Bomber Command Centre). So for me the book is really about nearly 90 not-so-significant places I would quite happily give a miss, plus about a dozen really intriguing and relevant ones that I have indeed so far missed plus yet another dozen I have already been to. So it’s quite a low yield of a mere handful of actual discoveries for me. But that’s partly due to a different focus and range of interests. Other readers/travellers will likely get more out of this book.
By the way, the number 111 and the whole format of the book is pre-given, as it is part of a large series of standard-size paperback books that all have the “111 places in X you shouldn’t miss” title. All places are given exactly one page of text and one page with one photo (occasionally two) and a short list of practicalities (address, opening times, etc.). I therefore balked at the author’s own assessment in the foreword that this was an “inimitable guidebook” when at least in its format it kind of is an “imitation” (of other books in the series). Moreover such a grand statement by the author himself has an awful air of self-aggrandizing and lack of modesty. It would have been OK if it had come from a press release by the publishers of the book, but coming from the author himself this is very awkward, bordering on the embarrassing.
Another bold claim, made both in the publishers’ blurb and on the back cover, that this is the “first-ever ‘dark-tourism’ guide”, is also too self-assured and actually incorrect – as I have pointed out elsewhere already
As for the format of the book, I found that the one-page-per-site allocation, even though it appears so “fair”, actually made the book unbalanced. Some of the more important places (e.g. IWM North or the Bomber Command Centre) could have done with much more text, while other minor sites could have been covered more briefly (or even omitted). There’s also an imbalance within the texts. Many an entry consists only of a synopsis of the history involved, but says nothing much (if anything at all) about what a visitor can expect to find at the site today – e.g. in the chapter about the Barrow Blitz and the associated Dock Museum, I would have liked to have been given at least an indication of what there is to see in order to decide whether it’s worth visiting or not. But nothing is offered in that respect.
The practicalities listings are also often a bit deficient. Under “getting there” many entries only get a short line like “train to X then a Y-minutes walk/taxi ride” (but mostly without any indication of in what direction); sometimes it’s just “train to X” – but then what? These are hardly proper directions. Also under “hours” it frequently just says “see website”. So the value of these practicalities listings isn’t quite as high as Stone has made them out to be elsewhere (see here
). The “tips” at the end of these sections are basically what my “combinations” at the end of every full entry on my website do: suggest other sites in the vicinity or ones that are of a similar nature. In Stone’s book these are sometimes also potential dark sites, but more often not. I found that a few of the dark sites only given such a one- or two-liner “tip” could have deserved a proper entry, more than many of those that are actually featured in the book. For example the National Museum of the Royal Navy, mentioned as a tip in the chapter about the Heugh Gun battery in Hartlepool, or the other branches of the Imperial War Museum mentioned under the IWM North
entry (that is: the eminent original IWM
, HMS Belfast, the Churchill War Rooms
and IWM Duxford
I would also have liked the inclusion of unmentioned places which I would consider major dark-tourism sites, such as Sellafield
and in particular the associated museum in Whitehaven
or the National Cold War Exhibition at RAF Cosford
, maybe at the expense of some of the non-sites or comparatively insignificant places. But selections such as these are always somewhat subjective and the result of different preferences, interests and travel histories (the same admittedly applies to my own book
). It’s not surprising that there is a certain cluster of covered sites located in the north-west of England – which is where the author is based (in Preston, where he works at the University of Central Lancashire).
So much for content/coverage, what about the style and editing quality of the book? Given that the author has a long history in the academic side of dark-tourism research, and I have seen quite a bit of his writings and found that it tends to be on the convoluted “highfalutin” side stylistically, I wondered whether he would be able to reign in that style and instead write in a way accessible to all. I know from my own experience from early on working on this website (beginning in 2008) that it took me some conscious effort to unlearn some of the stylistic conventions from my previous academic career (in linguistics
– see also here
) and adopt a more general-reader-friendly style (which I hope I have managed over time). Well, I am pleased to report that Stone’s book is indeed accessible and should be perfectly readable for the general audience it is aimed at. Occasionally Stone does squeeze in the odd academic term from his scholarly arsenal, but thankfully at only a fairly handleable frequency (one such term is “heterotopia”, which I know Stone is especially fond of, though I am less enthusiastic – see this other review
, which contains an evaluation of the scientific usefulness of that term). Stylistically there are a few oddities that I, as a writer, stumbled over – e.g. expressions like “during The Terror during the French Revolution” on page 60, or the occasional (near) verbatim repetition of the subtitle of a chapter in the first or last line of the body text, which could have been avoided, but I doubt many other readers will find much fault with things like this.
I’m also not very fond of wishy-washy lines like the one about the Maidstone Mummy that it “teaches us many lessons” (p 192) … well WHAT lessons, then? Or consider this, about a former Sheffield cemetery (now without graves and landscaped): “Today, the cemetery is a tranquil park and nature reserve that is full of dead local luminaries telling heritage tales” (p 70). Are we to imagine a green space crowded with talkative prominent zombies?
Occasionally there is even funny brilliance, as in the subtitle for the Anaesthesia Heritage Centre (p 160) which reads: “Passing gas is a life-affirming activity”, a witty reference to the earlier use of gases as anaesthetics. (However, this line, without being marked as a quotation, seems to actually have been taken from the entry for the Centre on Atlas Obscura
– external link, opens in a new tab – or did they steal it from Stone? Anyway, it is funny regardless.)
The book contains few obvious errors, as far as I can see (I’m no expert in all this older history or folklore/mythology stuff so cannot judge those elements confidently, but they seem well-enough researched to me), but there are a few things that are a bit sloppy. As has been pointed out by another reviewer (on Amazon) there are some wrong figures, e.g. on page 20 where “2013” should have been “1913”, and there are a couple of slight syntactic glitches, like a double article on page 48 – which should have been rectified in the editing process (though I know from my own publication experience that such things have a nasty tendency to slip through, so this shouldn’t be taken too seriously). There are also a few factual inaccuracies, e.g. in the chapter (p 98) about the Bluebird K7 and speed-record hunter Donald Campbell (see Ruskin Museum
) where Stone claims Campbell used “supersonic vehicles”; the Bluebell was fast, sure, but at a then record speed of 403 mph hardly anywhere near as fast as the speed of sound (supersonic speed at ground level has only been achieved once, much later, in 1997). And in the chapter on the St Dunstan-in-the-East church ruin in London (p 204), destroyed in the Blitz, Stone calls the German Luftwaffe’s air raids a bombing “siege”, which is hardly the right word here. Or consider this, about the rumours concerning the disappeared suspected murderer Lord Lucan (whose house, not visitable, is another non-site): that he might have been “living in Africa and then being eaten by a tiger” (p 190). This brings back memories of Monty Python: a tiger? … in Africa?!?
The book finishes with three maps on which all 111 locations are indicated, two and a half pages of photo credits for photographs not taken by the author himself (which account for a bit under half of the total), a short list of acknowledgements and a brief author’s bio, but there is no index.
Overall, this almost pocket-sized little guidebook is an entertaining read with lots of photos for illustration and offers plenty of discoveries for curious offbeat tourists (I’d guess mostly domestic ones) – especially if you are also interested in local little obscure sites related to older history, folklore, mythology and so forth. For me, though, the book places too much emphasis on such sites and features only few relatively substantial sites that would fit in with my understanding of dark tourism as related only to modern history – although about two dozen of the places covered are indeed important dark attractions in that sense too. But the number 111 is only achieved by stretching the definition of dark tourism to its widest, so that for me much of it is simply uninteresting. But that will likely be different for other readers. There are a few flaws in the book, but mostly not too serious. I’ve noted a few sites I had previously been unaware of and so far indeed missed, so that I will try to visit those on future trips to England. But the majority of the many less significant places covered in the book I will happily give a miss and rather focus on the few really important sites that still deserve an entry also on this website. So I’ve taken away some inspiration from this book, but not as much as its title might suggest.