The Secret Agent

In this, the 5th CSB podcast, Lloyd and Tim sink into the murky and topographically challenging world of Joseph Conrad’s imagined London, as described in the classic 1907 novel ‘The Secret Agent’.

It’s a world of foreign agents, mysterious assassinations, international tensions and suspicious Russian intrigue – so nothing like the world today, right? Our route through London takes in foreign embassies in Knightsbridge, dodgy book shops in Soho, underground beer halls on the Strand, plus the wide green spaces of Greenwich Park.

Lloyd gets very excited about finding signs of 1880s (or is it 1890s?) London about 15-20 feet below street level (hidden under a grille in the middle of the Charing Cross). Tim is in a disputatious mood, questioning pretty much all the dates in the book and the siting of Verloc’s dirty bookshop on the edge of Leicester Square.

There follows learned and lager-fuelled conversations about the history of London porn shops, the right or wrong way to take a train to Greenwich, and the enthusiasm of late-Victorian anarchists free-thinkers – and Bismarck – for lager itself.

Each month we road-test a work of fiction that appears to be curiously specific about dates and locations. We go to the places mentioned and see if descriptions are accurate, journey-times credible, dates and days all in order.

Sources & credits

Theme from The Ipcress File – John Barry:
‘A’ Bomb on Wardour Street – The Jam:
Spy – Ashbrg:
T S Eliot vs Portishead:
The Place I Love – The Jam:
Do The Strand – Roxy Music:
Fly – The Jam:


London Fictions on The Secret Agent:
Martial Bourdain:
Chesham Place:
The Assassination of Alexander II:
Bismarck’s Bench:
Exploring London – 32 Brett Street:
The Buried Remains of Little Compton Street:
The Bomb Shop – Christopher Draper:
A Brief History of Cecil Court – Tim Bryars:
The Street Where London’s Victorians Bought Their Porn – Dr Matthew Green:
Joseph Conrad’s Silenus Beer Hall:
North Kent Line –

The Dark is Rising

Welcome to the fourth CSB podcast, in which Lloyd and Tim discover the hidden landscapes at the heart of Susan Cooper’s magnificent fantasy, The Dark Is Rising. We travel to deepest Buckinghamshire to find Cooper’s fictional village of Huntercombe, and the home of her hero Will Stanton, seventh son of a seventh son.

Lloyd gets obsessed with the dates of Britain’s first motorway for reasons which will only become obvious if you listen, while Tim brings stories of the emerging counter-culture of the late 1960s. We look for Herne’s Oak in Windsor Great Park, and go digging around in churchyards for Celtic crosses.

Each month we road-test a work of fiction that appears to be curiously specific about dates and locations. We go to the places mentioned and see if descriptions are accurate, journey-times credible, dates and days all in order.

Sources & credits

Bryn Terfel: Songs from A Shropshire Lad –
Led Zeppelin: Battle of Evermore –
Jethro Tull: Jack in the Green –
Incredible String Band: No Sleep Blues –
Quintessential: Sleepsong


Susan Cooper’s Margaret Edwards acceptance speech –…hes/2012/cooper.pdf
British Motorway Network Chronology Maps –
Camelot Project Interview with Susan Cooper –…th-susan-cooper
The Windsor Free Festival 1972 –
English magic: how folklore haunts the British landscape –…tish-landscape


Welcome to the third CSB podcast, in which Lloyd and Tim take to the open road – or rather the somewhat congested A20. We’re following the route taken by James Bond in Ian Fleming’s Moonraker, travelling (at about half Bond’s speed) between central London and Kingsdown, the supposed location of the Moonraker rocket base.

We speed our way to the precise locations of two major car crashes in the book, puzzle over Fleming’s (and Bond’s) obsession with the Ashford Bypass, and end up at Fleming’s not-so-glamourous 1950s beach-side residence where Katherine Hepburn – among others – was known to enjoy a swim.

Each month we road-test a work of fiction that appears to be curiously specific about dates and locations. We go to the places mentioned and see if descriptions are accurate, journey-times credible, dates and days all in order.

Sources & credits


Madness: Driving In My Car –
Count Basie: Bond Theme –
Count Basie: 007 –
Shirley Bassey: Moonraker –
Shirley Bassey: Moonraker (Disco Version) –

The Roader’s Digest –…tle=Main_Page
Ian Fleming’s James Bond: Annotations and Chronologies for Ian Fleming’s Bond Stories by John Griswold –…es/dp/1425931006

Stig of the Dump

Welcome to the second Curiously Specific Book Club podcast, where we go in search of a famous dump. We’re using Clive King’s classic childrens book Stig of the Dump to navigate our way around rural Kent, with its heady mix of travellers, standing stones and luxury golf courses.

We start off in a pub car park (nothing unusual there), and speculate on the dating of Stig of the Dump, based on the remarkable existence of an actual date in the book.

From there we travel to a Gypsy site with an interesting, and slightly sad, history of fiscal skulduggery. And on this site we find what looks, very like, a dump.

But it’s not Stig’s dump. Our third location is a golf course, designed by Jack Nicklaus. Lloyd has a political rant and does a bit of journalism, and we ask the unexpected question: did Jack Nicklaus kill Stig?

And then finally, we go ‘midsummer crazy’ in search of the book’s standing stones. Which are not at all where you might expect them to be.

Sources & credits

Neanderthal Man – 10cc –
Straight Down the Middle – Bing Crosby –
Do Not Operate Heavy Machinery While Under The Influence Of Poetry – Andrew Grumbridge

Ash was a boring place. It needed something to wake it up, so I invented Stig” by Patrick Barkham
Swan Farm Romany Gypsies
Kit’s Coty House

Lily Shepherd – @theveganstudentuk on Instagram;

Stig of the Dump EXTRA: Interview with Julia Eccleshare

You’ve probably already realised that Lloyd and Tim are no better than budding amateurs – in all matters relating to books and podcasting anyway.

So – whenever we can – we’re going to chat to someone who actually knows what they’re talking about when it comes to the books we cover in the main podcast.

This time, distinguished childrens book expert Julia Eccleshare agreed to talk to us about ‘Stig of the Dump’.

She covers a load of interesting topics including kids roaming free in the countryside, Stig’s lack of a voice, the absence of parents and the general culture of kids literature in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Between this and the main podcast we’re hoping you’ll go back to ‘Stig of the Dump’ and read and enjoy it in a slightly different way.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood

Is Charles Dickens’s last unfinished novel curiously specific about dates and locations? Well… kinda.

We start in Wapping at Princess Puffer’s opium den, and we end up in the Kent countryside at a pub that could be the model for The Tilted Wagon. In between, Lloyd uses his knowledge of trains and timetables to work out the year in which the book is set (kinda).

We take a walk Dickens made many times down the Richard Dadd Path in search of a gruesome murder site. We turn up in Rochester, fortuitously on the day of the somewhat odd Dickens festival and locate all the main buildings of ‘Cloisterham’. We search in vain for the weir where the Reverend Crisparkle enjoys a midwinter skinny-dip.

Conversations include a debate about the merits of David Bowie’s ‘Earthling’, the hell that would be a weekend stay with Dickens, the difference between being ‘curiously specific’ (us) and ‘locally vague’ (Dickens), and why we should thank our lucky stars that David Lean never directed a ‘Mission Impossible’ movie.

The 27th Adventure Podcast: Death & Destruction in Woking (‘The War of the Worlds’)

We’re back! Having come to the end of ‘The Riddle of the Sands’, we find another book that is “curiously specific about dates and locations”.

A day-trip to Woking, Weybridge and Shepperton allows us to map out the action of the opening chapters of H. G. Wells’s ’The War of the Worlds’.

Lloyd explains how Woking, since Victorian times, has been  a town marked by death, and goes in search of the first working mosque in Western Europe, outside of Moorish Spain. Tim addresses the basic questions of exactly when the Martians might have landed in Woking, how long it would have taken them to fly from Mars to Earth, and how big a Martian tripod is (not the size of the model one in Woking shopping centre btw).

First up, we explain how and why our attempt at crowdfunding at Unbound has come to an end, and how our supporters can get their money back (00:25). We affirm our intention to keep noodling around with old books, and focus on ‘The War of the Worlds’ (02:57).

Our first impressions of Woking (04:17); the story of how a pub in Woking got to be named after Ogilvy the astronomer (05:41); Woking as a town of death (07:07); a tip of the hat to Woking boy, Paul Weller (08:54); a visit to Horsell Common, where the Martians landed (10:32).

Funeral Pyre by The Jam (filmed at the sandpits on Horsell Common, where the Martians landed)

Tim’s thoughts about when the Martians might have landed (12:00), including information about the Opposition of Mars (13:21), a proposed launch date from Mars of 12th February 1901 (14:54), a discussion about how fast objects fly through space (17:28), a proposed landing date of 7th or 14th June 1901 (21:56).

Lloyd reveals the history of the Woking mosque (22:20), and the town’s long association with Islamism (24:36); the extraordinary life of Gottleib Leitner and the creation of the Oriental College (27:23).

The Woking Martian (not the right size at all)

Having razed Woking, we move on to the destruction of Weybridge and Shepperton, and try to work out how big a Martian tripod actually is (30:51); a few interesting and mainly useless facts about Shepperton (33:15); estimating a tripod’s stride and height (36:05); tall buildings of Britain that a tripod might tower over, including the tallest building in the UK in 1895 (38:02).

No Club Business  – but many many thanks to everyone who has written to us, and to all who have supported us over the last 18 months.


Great Open Sea by the Wellington Sea Shanty Society:

Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds –

Funeral Pyre – The Jam : (filmed at the sandpits on Horsell Common, where the Martians landed)

The end of the Unbound crowdfunding adventure: what happens now

We are very sorry to announce that we have failed to reach our financial target on the crowdfunding site Unbound in time for us to undertake the great ROTS Adventure in Sept/Oct this year.

We’ve decided, therefore, not to try your patience any further, and are closing down this Unbound project.

“The best part of this adventure has definitely been all the people we’ve encountered along the way” Ralf Berger – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The money that many of you so generously pledged will be credited back to your Unbound account, and you can use this credit to support other brilliant Unbound projects.

If you’d prefer simply to get your money back, you can contact the Unbound team directly and they will sort it out for you. If you experience any problems at all with this process, do email us directly at rotscarruthers [at] gmail [dot] com, and we’ll go to work on your behalf.

We are, naturally, very disappointed not to have produced the Handbook, the Field Audiobook and the 1-month web adventure for you. But the last 18 months have been excellent fun, and we leave behind a content-rich blog at and 26 podcasts available free on iTunes & Soundcloud.

We fully intend to keep the blog & podcasts online. And we won’t stop playing with old books, and taking them out every now and again for adventures in the modern world. We’ll use this blog and the Facebook page ( to alert you to any new developments as they occur.

Finally, many many thanks for your support, your enthusiasm, your generosity and your amazing emails comments & contributions. The best part of this adventure has definitely been all the people we’ve encountered along the way. Thanks one and all.

Lloyd NotDavies & Tim NotCarruthers

“To reduce a romantic ideal to a working plan is a very difficult thing.”

The 26th Adventure Podcast: Going Overboard in Ostmahorn

We’ve made it to the last day in the book – October 26. Our heroes, Carruthers and Davies, sail off into the sunset with the delightful Clara on board, and her dastardly dad Dollman overboard. In this podcast Lloyd notDavies plots out how to get back to Blighty via Ostmahorn, Holland. Tim notCarruthers, meanwhile, considers the end of Dollman, and the potentially tricky subject of suicide at sea.

First up, we make yet another plea to the listeners to support us on Unbound (02:52), where we’re trying to raise money to produce a beautiful new book and online adventure for you. Sign up here:

Lloyd charts the route from Norderney to Ostmahorn via the island of Rottum (04:56); a brief description of Rottum & its warden (06:42); the tale of the ‘crazy Earl’ who once owned the island (08:12); how we might sail past Rottum today (10:28); how the SS held out in this part of the world at the end of WW2 (12:20).

Tim talks about Dollman ‘falling’ overboard (14:00); people who fall off cruise ships (15:46); people who jump off the Staten Island ferry (18:06); the strange tale of Donald Crowhurst (18:58).

Donald Crowhurst: like Dollman, lost at sea.

Tim talks about late-19th century attitudes to suicide (21:56); the move to treating would-be suicides as mental patients rather than criminals (23:26);  where would Dollman’s body have ended up anyway?(25:35); how ‘The Mikado’ ridiculed English attitudes to anti-suicide laws (27:37).

Lloyd tries to get us to Ostmahorn but finds there’s a dyke in the way (29:56). Musical Interlude: the legendary Ostmahorn/Gröningen folk scene of the ‘70s featuring Törf and Fungus (33:19).

Ostmahorn as it is today – a *freshwater* harbour. Image via

Tim is puzzled as to whether Dollman really is a double agent (36:04); examples of real-life German double agents of the period (37:41); stories of criminals, madmen and fantasists working as spies (40:55). Lloyd consults his Bradshaws (again) about trains, and steamers from Harlingen to London (45:41); our landing point at Tower Bridge (46:49); a problem with getting back to London before October 29 (47:56).

Club Business – Kim’s fears for ship’s dog allayed (50:54); Nick on the Battle of Dorking (51:40). Having brought this narrative to an end, there are no missions for next week! Thank you everyone for your contributions.

‘an Englishman in disguise’

It turns out that Carruthers has a talent for disguise (as if, perhaps, he were some kind of real spy…).

The rough marine garb he bought in a slop-shop in Amsterdam has served him well. Having successfully fooled a guesthouse owner in Esens and a drunk in Dornum that he’s some kind of German merchant sailor, he’s emboldened enough on the evening of October 25 to shadow von Brüning on a train and actually stand next to him at a level crossing without being recognised.

How does he do this? And from whom does he draw his inspiration when it comes to pretending to be someone he is not?

Well, on the first point, there is a heavy reliance on ‘comforters’ and ‘mufflers’ – scarves to you and and me – into which one can bury one’s face. Carruthers has also acquired a peacoat that might have quite big collars that can be turned up. He’s also shaved off his moustache entirely and is likely to have two-day’s worth of stubble by now. One assumes he also has a cap of some sort, leaving him capable of pretty much covering up his whole head. 

A heavy reliance on comforters & mufflers. See

Develop a seaman’s gait or ‘roll’ in order to suppress the upright manner of a youthful London club-man and my guess is that Carruthers could indeed be transformed – or at least be unrecognisable on a dark Frisian street in October. And we must remember too that Carruthers can speak German, so even when engaged in conversation, at the railway ticket office or the pub, he can just about pass muster.

The kind of peacoat and hat Carruthers might be wearing. Image via the excellent

He does admit at one point: “I knew no fo’c’sle German, but had a smattering of fo’c’sle English, gathered from Cutcliffe Hyne and Kipling.” And here perhaps is a clue to how Carruthers manages to throw himself so effectively into the part of an all-action sailorman – he’s clearly imagining himself to be Captain Kettle!

Captain Kettle. Images (this and below) via the very wonderful vintage angler blog –
“the most popular and most talked about hero of the present day”

Captain Kettle was the creation of the aforementioned Cutcliffe Hyne, and starred in a number of of very successful adventures stories though out the 1890s and early 1900s. Captain Kettle stories appeared in magazines alongside other iconic works of the time, including H G Wells’s ‘War of the Worlds’, and it’s said that Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ contains key phrases and images taken from Kettle adventures. Indeed, the image of Captain Kettle himself bears a striking resemblance to Joseph Conrad himself.

By donning his disguise, therefore, Carruthers is placing himself right in the middle of a literary landscape full of adventurers, action-heroes and discoverers of dark things abroad. No wonder he seems to be so comfortable in his comforter.

‘An armada of light-draught barges’

And so, as a stowaway in a ‘small tug’ in the evening of October 25th, or perhaps the early morning of the 26th, Carruthers discovers the Riddle at last. The secret plan is not defensive one, but offensive:

To neglect obvious methods, to draw on the obscure resources of an obscure strip of coast, to improve and exploit a quantity of insignificant streams and tidal outlets, and thence, screened by the islands, to despatch an armada of light-draught barges, capable of flinging themselves on a correspondingly obscure and therefore unexpected portion of the enemy’s coast; that was a conception so daring, aye, and so quixotic in some of its aspects, that even now I was half incredulous.

Now, notCarruthers and I have been indulging ourselves in disagreements over the feasibility of towing lighters big enough to carry sufficient numbers of soldiers across the North Sea through the Tiefs of East Friesland. But let’s assume such a thing is possible. Is Childers’ conception one that makes any sense?

There is a long history of invasion from the water, as I don’t need to tell anyone in England, especially those in the East Sussex area. But like so much else at the period of  Riddle of the Sands, the idea of putting men into barges and attacking up a beach is changing at this time, for reasons which will only become fully clear a dozen years after the publication of the book, in 1915, when a British plan to attack the Dardanelles Strait ended in disaster and extraordinary loss of life. I am talking, of course, of Gallipoli – at which my own great-uncle, Lloyd Jones, lost his life.

Anzac soldiers landing at Gallipoli
Anzac soldiers landing at Gallipoli

I won’t go into detail on the Gallipoli campaign – there’s a great deal of good material on it elsewhere. But I will point to one element of it: the scheme, allegedly that of one Commander Edward Unwin, to run an old ship aground on V Beach at the tip of the peninsula, inside which would be hidden hundreds of troops. Unwin anticipated a danger that the ship, the 4,000-ton cargo vessel River Clyde, might run aground before hitting the beach, and in case of this he suggested towing a steam hopper and three lighters behind the River Clyde which could be used as a kind of pontoon. Military History has a good article on this, and I urge you to read it, but the upshot is this: the River Clyde ran aground short of the beach, there was panic in the lighters, and the machine guns ripped apart the soldiers pouring out from within this nautical Trojan horse.

SS River Clyde, the nautical Trojan Horse
SS River Clyde, the nautical Trojan Horse

Such a picture was replicated across the Gallipoli campaign – sorties imagined by men who seem to have relied on the imaginations of novelists such as Erskine Childers as much on hard strategic thinking. Principal among these was Winston Churchill himself, and here’s where the story gets really weird. Jim Ring, in his book Erskine Childers, says that Childers himself had written a proposal for securing Borkum and Juist in 1906, and that Churchill had long been a proponent of this idea; in book The World Crisis, Churchill wrote:

In my earliest meetings with Lord Fisher in 1907 he had explained to me that the Admiralty plans at that date in the event of hostilities with Germany were for the seizure as early as possible in the war of the island of Borkum as an advanced base for all our flotillas and inshore squadrons blockading the German river mouths. I was always deeply interested in this view.

In fact, so advanced was the thinking over Borkum that the Cabinet and War Council considered it as one of two initiatives to open up a second front. The other was the Dardanelles. In other words, the British government decided that an invasion of the East Frisians was more dangerous than Gallipoli. This puts an interesting spin on the scheme in Riddle of the Sands.

The SS River Clyde by Charles Dixon
The SS River Clyde by Charles Dixon

Two further thoughts on this type of warfare. There are a chilling pair of paragraphs in the Military History article I linked to above:

The tows of the Dublins were scheduled to land at 05.30, but had been badly delayed by the complexities of transhipping into the rowing boats from the ships and the current pouring out of the Dardanelles. This was to cause considerable confusion as it became apparent that the River Clyde would run ashore first. The complicated circling manoeuvre that the Clyde was forced to adopt meant that she had lost almost all seaway when she ran aground with barely a shudder at 06.22 some 80yds from shore.

This seems to have acted as the catalyst for a storm of fire, which lashed across the Dublin Fusiliers in their open boats still rowing towards the beach. The Turkish riflemen could hardly miss such a target – and they began to wreak a horrifying slaughter. Trapped in the close confines of the rowing boats, the Dublins were utterly helpless and almost before they knew what was happening had been shot to pieces.

This summarises, horribly, why this form of invasion became impossible: the perfection of the rifle, and the invention of the machine gun. It was the British belief that Turkish firepower was limited that led to the horror of Gallipoli. You can’t attack a beach in rowing boats when the other side are shooting machine guns and rifles at you – and by the second world war, the ‘lighters’ of Carruthers and Davies had been replaced by ironclad barges which are, crucially, self-powered.

And finally, at Gallipoli, another odd little echo. Carrier seaplanes were employed by the British under Colonel Frederick Sykes to act as spotters for the naval batteries. The seaplanes were carried to the Dardanelles by the ship Ben My Chree, based first in Jero Bay, and among the men providing expert navigation and instruction in maps was none other than Erskine Childers himself.

HMS Ben-my-Chree
HMS Ben-my-Chree