Possibly the strangest addition to the ranks of travel list publications, Daniel Smith’s new book 100 Places You Will Never Visit: The World’s Most Secret Locations is effectively a travel guide to places you can’t go. Or wouldn’t want to go for that matter.
So why read a book that tells about a bunch of things you can’t do? Well, for me the clincher was that I live virtually next door to one of these locations and I was a bit curious about it – the location being Cheltenham’s Government Communication Headquarters, usually abbreviated to GCHQ and known locally as “the doughnut” owing to its ring shape. If you look at any aerial shot of GCHQ (including the one in this book), well mine is one of the little houses you can see clustered around it. I regularly pass signs warning me not to take photos of the doughnut and that I am mere inches from a site designated under the Official Secrets Act; I even once was questioned by a policeman about whether I had seen a man in a CCTV photograph from the site, who had apparently been “acting suspiciously” around the perimeter. Hey, for all I know the neighbourhood communications workers are practising their surveillance techniques on me right now as I write this (good evening, spooks, if you are).
Unfortunately Smith’s book didn’t go into much detail about what goes on next door, but it did offer a quite interesting overview of 99 other places that are off limits for one reason or another. In some of these cases we are denied access because of the nature of the work that is undertaken there (like with GCHQ), with others it is for our safety (as with snake island), the value of the items held within (such as the Bank of England vaults), because they remain officially unacknowledged (North Korea’s mysterious room 39) or because the location is simply unknown (the tomb of Genghis Khan for one). Some are places you would expect to be on such a list – Fort Knox, Guantanamo Bay, MI5 headquarters – while others were more unexpected additions to the listing, such the Coca-Cola recipe vault, the Queen’s bedroom and the Amber Room. Each entry comes with a sort section of text ranging from about 300 to 1000 words, accompanied by any pictures, illustrations or photographs that the author could collect. For a lot of secret locations, it is a remarkably well-illustrated book (150 of them according to the press release).
While this is a book that appears to be more “dip in” than “read cover to cover” I found it to be surprisingly engaging; I ended up reading almost all of it, and learning a fair bit along the way too. It is well researched and nicely written, with explanation falling comfortably on the side of reason rather than with the more outlandish or conspiratorial theories that often surround secret places. The clarity of the text should make it a book that will appeal to teenage as well as adult audiences with a wide range of interests (I would suggest it as a great Christmas present for anyone with an interest in geography or travel).
100 Places You Will Never Visit: The World’s Most Secret Locations
by Daniel Smith
Published by Quercus, September 2012
With thanks to the publisher for providing me with this review copy.
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