Class encourages student ‘travel’ across London

The Western Bubble. The ubiquitous phrase that implies students never travel beyond campus or the regular haunts on Richmond Row.

That was my experience as an English undergraduate almost 20 years ago. But today, as a travel journalist and writing instructor, I wanted to create an assignment that encouraged my students to break through ‘The Bubble’ and explore a wider London – a travel guidebook of London, Ont.

Of my 24 students, the majority are from the GTA. One is from London. In fact, only 13 had been to the Forest City prior to attending school here.

The guidebook assignment consisted of each student composing an introduction to the city, followed by four reviews – two of amenities of their choice, such as a restaurant or tour, and two from class field trips to the Covent Garden Market and Budweiser Gardens.

In 2006, I wrote a Frommer’s Guidebook of the Niagara Region. Before exploring Niagara, I assumed The Falls were the only reason to visit the region. From the vineyards to the Niagara Escarpment, I found so much more.

Before discovering the city, students wrote their initial perceptions of London as part of the introduction to the assignment.

Some stated the obvious.

“(London is) a less exciting version of Toronto with awful transit and a lot of construction.”

Some felt that the city was just a large university town without much else. Many mentioned that going downtown sometimes didn’t feel safe.

“Women may want to avoid the infamous ‘Sandwich Board Guys’ – two men who often stand downtown or near residences to harass women who are walking by. (While they’re irritating, there are few things more satisfying than completely ignoring them.).”

Another mentioned the homeless situation in the city, but added a positive spin.

“Londoners are a compassionate bunch. An estimated 45.3 per cent of London residents volunteer, many at the city’s 1,800 non-profits and charities. The city still houses the Meeting Tree and 275 Thames, two stops for the Underground Railroad, which helped African Americans fleeing slavery in the 1800s. What’s more, the city recently welcomes 2,400 Syrian refugees and plans to bring in much more. London is quiet yet welcoming community.”

I hoped that the students would find some surprising discoveries after much research and exploration.

Many began their introductions saying London was a city with a small-town feel true to its agricultural roots. Others remarked that they were impressed with London’s sense of community, especially when it comes to London Knights hockey.

“With the highest attendance rate of any team in the provincial league, a large portion of the sold out games are held by season-ticket holders. On game nights, downtown London is a sea of green.”

Students were also impressed with the cheap tickets – $22 for some seats, in comparison with Toronto’s skyrocketing game prices.

For their reviews, many students didn’t venture too far, choosing the Ceeps, Barnie’s and Victoria Park to review. But others managed to visit places off the beaten path, one of the main goals of good travel writing.

The students who wrote about the architecture and homes captured the feel of London.

One fell in love with Eldon House, London’s oldest residence: “Built in 1834, Eldon House is the oldest standing residence in the city, and looks like something straight out of The Notebook.”

Another ventured to Fanshawe Pioneer Village: “Built in the mid-20th century to represent the communities that inhabited southwestern Ontario nearly 200 years ago, this recreation of rural life beautifully captures a sliver of London’s history.”

During class, the students read samples from several guidebooks, such as Frommer’s, Lonely Planet and Rough Guides. The reviews they wrote for their assignment were short, about 300 words.

“Avoid superlatives and clichés,” I told them.

No place is perfect.

No one place is the worst.

Be fair.

Be balanced.

When one student went hiking at Boler Mountain, her observations hit the right balance.

“Following the blue signs past the mountain’s volleyball court, the trail began as steep uphill terrain, making it less than ideal for hiking beginners or children, especially under the hot sun. The path up the hill was very rocky, which made taking a wrong step easier. Once you get to the mountain peak, the view is vast trees – pleasant but underwhelming. The trail’s most striking feature was the wildlife – large monarch and tiny yellow butterflies and various species of caterpillars keep you company on the hike.”

During my guidebook lecture in class, I also repeated that guidebook readers are going to act on your advice – so be true to the experience. Be honest.

When asked what would draw them back to the city after they’ve graduated, one student yelled out – “Cousin Vinnie’s smoked meat sandwiches!” “Victoria Park,” commented another. “I love this city in the summer – it’s quiet and there’s always a festival going on.”

One of my favourite comments, from our field trip to the Covent Garden Market, surprised me.

“Bureks were tasty, but Zoran (the owner) was the best part of the booth – we ended up staying for 20 minutes, chatting with him about the chemical makeup of the earth.”

Her comment – which included the owner’s name (a great detail for travel writing), revealed that, at the very least, this assignment helped her reconsider the city, outside the Western Bubble.

Melanie Chambers is a travel journalist and travel-writing instructor in The Department of English and Writing Studies.