Even when a trip to research your book goes ridiculously wrong, it’s still worth taking. Tom Williams, author of the Burke series of adventures set in the early 19th century, looks back at one such trip – to Talavera, site of an important Peninsular War battle in 1809 – in the days when travelling for research was less of a problem than it can be now.
I learned my school history back in the days when history was all about kings and dates and battles and my O levels (GCSEs for any millennials reading) concentrated on British History from 1789 to 1832. That, of course, meant the Napoleonic Wars and, this being ‘English history’, that basically meant the Peninsular War. There was some vague understanding that one or two other countries might have been fighting France, but obviously the serious work was being done in Spain.
To this end we had to learn how to mark the places and dates of key battles of the Peninsular War on a map of Spain. I’m not joking – providing an outline map on which we had to put the appropriate notation was a regular feature of exams at the time.
All this suggests that I’m pretty sure that when I was 16 I knew exactly where Talavera was. I had no idea why the British were in Spain or what they were attempting to achieve. Indeed, until I wrote Burke in the Land of Silver (which has a couple of paragraphs somewhere near the beginning of chapter two summarising the economic importance of Spain’s South American colonies) I had no idea why Spain was so significant to 18th-century European history.
Given that I had never visited Spain; never, despite (or more likely because of) my O level history, understood anything about the Peninsular War; and that I was no longer remotely capable of finding Talavera on a map, setting the latest in the James Burke series around that battle posed something of a challenge.
Reading my way into the war was relatively simple. There’s been an awful lot written about it, both fiction and non-fiction, and my research for Burke in the Land of Silver meant that at least I understood the political background to the conflict. What the books couldn’t do, though, was to give me any idea of what Spain was like. I realised there was this quite large landmass on the south-west edge of Europe that was completely unknown to me.
Every so often, I get asked what’s the best thing about writing historical fiction and research trips have to be right up there. I’ve ridden a horse through snow in the Andes and I’ve visited Dyak tribes in Borneo. A week exploring Spain was going to be a doddle. Never mind: we had an itinerary planned and hotels booked – what could possibly go wrong?
I suppose the first indication that things might not be totally straightforward was at Gatwick airport, when our hand baggage was put in the hold. Sitting on our own in Madrid airport, waiting as every other passenger’s bag was oh-so-slowly unloaded ahead of ours, our itinerary began to unravel. It unravelled further when the hire car we booked was not actually ready. “But not to worry,” the bright young lady at the hire desk said, “we’ve upgraded you to a bigger car.”
This, it turned out, was not necessarily a good thing.
Although I’ve driven a lot in France and I’m used to driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, this was the first time I had ever actually driven a left-hand drive car – and one that was significantly wider than my own car at home. The result, I very soon found, was that I had no idea where the near side of my car was. As we made our way out of the airport, this meant a fair amount of kerb banging, but it was, I thought, nothing that I couldn’t cope with. In any case, I would surely soon get a feel for the width of the vehicle.
And, at first, it seemed that all would be well. We headed along the impressive motorway that runs west from Madrid towards Talavera. At least it was now abundantly clear what Wellington was doing at Talavera. He was taking his armies directly to Madrid to capture the Spanish capital. He didn’t make it for reasons that feature heavily in Burke in the Peninsular, but it was a good plan.
So there we were, heading west along the route that the British never got to see. They missed some nice scenery. Most particularly they missed the incredibly beautiful medieval town of Toledo. It’s still has its narrow streets, designed for people and the odd pack animal. It’s not a place to accidentally find yourself driving a wide and unfamiliar car.
We’ll draw a veil over the next half hour. Suffice it to say that no medieval monuments were harmed but the car – well, I was very pleased that the charming young woman at the airport had persuaded me to take out their insurance policy.
I really do recommend that you visit Toledo if you ever get the chance. It is very, very beautiful and I only wish we could have had more time, but we were already running late and the next day we were due at Talavera.
I had rather expected the battlefield to have road signs and maybe a museum, but I got the distinct impression that Spain was in no hurry to celebrate Talavera. There is a street named after General Cuesta who, nominally at least, won the battle for Spain, but it’s a small, short one and easily missed.
I had a map from 1809 and maps (and satellite images) from today, but I couldn’t marry the two together. We drove round the countryside for a while and we did find a ridge that looked to be in the right position, but I’m not at all sure that we ever did visit the battlefield of Talavera.
It wasn’t a wasted trip. We saw so many beautiful things and our visit to the famous lines of Torres Vedras in Portugal may well be the inspiration for another book in the Burke series.
Even our failure to find the Talavera battlefield was far from disastrous. The battlefield itself has been mucked about a lot, with a road built through the middle of it, so I was more interested to get a feel of the place.
What was amazing was how the miles of Spanish plain suddenly turned into steep lines of hills. The idea of trying to attack up slopes like that was quite terrifying.
The time we spent driving to and from Talavera also gave the notion of the scale of these campaigns and the days that must have been spent marching across dusty, unshaded plain.
In the end, you can do a lot of research of unfamiliar places using Google street view but, ultimately, nothing beats going there – even if you end up not entirely sure where you have been.
Battle of Talavera: via National Army Museum
A Map of Spain & Portugal, Drawn from the Best Authorities, from the General Atlas by Robert Wilkinson, 1794: via Wikimedia
Skeels wounded at the Action of Tellivera, 28th July 1809: via National Army Museum
Bataille de Talaveyra de la Reyna donnée le 28 juillet 1809 entre les armees anglo-espagnoles et Francaises by E Walker: via National Army Museum
Plan of the Battle of Talavera from The Battles of Talavera, a Poem, by JW Croker (eighth edition, 1810): via British Library
Vista de Talavera de la Reina by Asqueladd: via Wikimedia