Back in January 2008, whilst snowed in at a café in Bucharest, my partner and I had a conversation about possible travel writing projects. One of us, and I have a sneaking suspicion it might have been me, was inspired to suggest the Wombles. For those who didn’t grow up in the UK in the 1970s, the Wombles are small furry creatures who live all over the world (but particularly on Wimbledon Common).
They originated in a series of children’s books by Elisabeth Beresford, but in the early 1970s they appeared in an animated TV series, narrated by Bernard Cribbins, and also as a successful pop group, aided and abetted by Mike Batt.
There are two important things to know about Wombles. Firstly, they make good use of the things that other folks leave behind. Yes, they were into reduce, re-use and recycle long before it became fashionable. Secondly, and from a travel perspective more importantly, every young Womble chooses their own name from the Times Atlas when they are old enough.
The main Wombles in the original books and TV series were:
- Great Uncle Bulgaria, the senior Womble
- Madame Cholet, the Womble chef
- Tobermory, who made things out of rubbish collected by the other Wombles
- Orinoco, the greediest and laziest Womble
- Tomsk, the brawny Womble
- Wellington, the brainy Womble
- Bungo, the bossy Womble
- Alderney, a young girl Womble
Naturally our Womble-related travels had to begin at the Womble home on Wimbledon Common. We took Orinoco Womble along with us.
As Orinoco is probably the most famous Womble, our journey proper started in January 2009 with a trip to Venezuela to visit the Orinoco Delta. I paddled a canoe, went piranha fishing and met a very friendly macaw who helped herself to our lunch and then tried to move in with us. It was very different from our usual sort of trip, but we also had time for a visit to the historic city of Ciudad Bolivar and a quick tour of Caracas.
Tobermory was the handyman Womble, who made good use of the things the other Wombles found on the Common. But Tobermory the town on the Isle of Mull is rather better known these days for the children’s TV series Balamory which was filmed there.
Great Uncle Bulgaria is the senior Womble in the burrow. Bulgaria was the only place on our Womble itinerary that we had visited before, so we decided to do something different, and opted for a walking holiday. I imagined it would be like the guided botanical walks I had done in Crete. This was a bit of a miscalculation, as I realised shortly after arrival when the group leader asked if our insurance covered helicopter evacuation.
Tomsk is the sporty, brawny Womble. But Tomsk in Siberia is a city with a number of universities (‘the Oxford of Siberia’?) Our visit gave us an excuse to travel on the Trans-Siberian railway. This provided us with an extra bonus Womble, as the train also passed through Omsk, the name of a visiting Russian Womble in one of the books.
Cholet is a small French town that we would probably never have visited had it not been for the Womble Project. As Mme Cholet was the Womble chef, we went to the nearby ‘Festival of Rual Deliciousness’ – mmm apple fritters!
Wellington was the brainy Womble. Sadly, we didn’t make it to New Zealand (yet!). Fortunately there are a pair of Wellingtons in the UK: one in Somerset and one in Shropshire. The Shropshire one is near the Wrekin, where we took our pocket-sized Wellington for a walk. (For Womble purists, it’s actually the Somerset one that Wellington Womble is named after – we visited that one as well.)
Next….Bungo! Bungo was the self-important, bossy Womble. He got his name by closing his eves and pointing at the atlas. Bungo turned out to be an old name for an area in southern Japan. When we got there we were excited to find that Bungo had his own bridge in Kitakyushu. We only found it thanks to the time-travelling raccoons, but that is another story.
Alderney was a girl Womble who appeared in the books but not the original 1970s TV series. It was also the home of author Elisabeth Beresford in later years. It made me think of Famous Five adventures.
Finally, Adelaide. Another Womble who didn’t appear in the TV programme of my youth, Miss Adelaide ran the Womble nursery. We went to Austrialia for a week and visited Adelaide and Kangaroo Island – maybe an odd choice for a first (and so far only) trip but hopefully we will be back.