My favourite place: California, United States

In the October 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine, Andrew Dickson selects California as his favourite place. History Extra caught up with him to find out more…

Founded in 1859 after gold was discovered there, Bodie was abandoned in the early 20th century. Today it is one of several ghost towns to explore in California. (Getty Images)

Q: When did you last travel to California and why were you there?

A: I’ve just returned, in fact! I spent two weeks doing a leisurely road trip from Seattle down to Los Angeles, winding down the coast road through Washington, Oregon and California. Despite a succession of forest fires – it’s tinder-dry there at the moment – it was spectacular, particularly on the hairpin-twisting ride into San Francisco.

Q: Why do you love the location?

A: The old answer: America’s sheer immensity. You could fit the entirety of England into North Carolina, while California itself has a coastline over 800 miles long. I drove nearly 3,000 miles in the end – London to Turkmenistan, roughly speaking.

Q: Which top three sights would you recommend people visit there, and why?

A: Hearst Castle in San Simeon is indeed a must-see: a fantastical edifice overlooking the Pacific, stuffed with priceless antiquities. Weirder still is the eerie Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles, burial site of numerous stars (the gravestone of voice artist Mel Blanc reads: “That’s all folks!”).

But for a more profound sense of history, visit the coastal redwood forests in the north of the state: the biggest tree there is thought to be at least 1,500 years old, meaning it was a sapling when the Roman Empire fell.

Q: During what period of its history would you most wanted to have visited California and why?

A: The gold rush, perhaps inevitably. The pace of life, the brutal conditions, the mix of cultures, the violence, the excitement – it’s hard to imagine another historical period like it.

Q: Where else in the world would you most like to visit and why?

A: Almost too many to mention. I’d love to explore more in China, and finally see the Terracotta Warriors in Shaanxi Province. Later this year I’m doing the Trans-Siberian railway for the first time, and hoping to visit one of the world’s northernmost book fairs in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia.

Andrew Dickson is a writer and journalist. His latest book is Worlds Elsewhere: Journeys Around Shakespeare’s Globe (Vintage, 2016).

You can read more about Andrew’s experiences in California in the October 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine, which is out now.

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