It was in 1978, when holidaying in the Lake District that I heard a story about some hill walkers who’d spent a night at the Wythburn Inn, and who were later told they couldn’t possibly have slept there because the Inn was submerged by the creation of the Thirlmere Reservoir in 1894. There was a similar story about some British travellers in France who stayed a night at a quaintly old-fashioned hotel, and attempted to find it again on their return journey, only to discover it did not exist. Then there’s the incident recounted by tourists on a bus who were looking for somewhere to stay and noticed an attractive hotel. They got off the bus at the next stop, which was only a short distance away, then walked back to where they thought the hotel had been, but the area looked different,… and there was no hotel*. Then there were the two young women who set out one evening to walk a few miles to a dance at a local village, only to find themselves struggling to cross an eerie and unfamiliar landscape,…
These curious anecdotes are examples of a type of psychical phenomenon known as a time-slip. They seem to fall into two categories: one where the protagonists apparently blunder into a place that only existed in the past, or two, it’s a place that is contemporary and known to them, only things are altered in some way, so that they struggle to find their way around.
It’s difficult to come up with a rational explanation for this sort of thing, and if the protagonists are clearly shaken or puzzled by their experience, as it seems they are, then it’s churlish to dismiss them as liars. Also, where the experience is shared with others, blaming it on an hallucination seems also unrealistically simplistic.
Like many of the so-called psychical phenomena, it’s safer to err on the side of a rational explanation, if only for the sake of your own sanity, and I’d be following my own advice on this one if it weren’t for the fact that I once experienced a similar thing myself. I dismissed the incident at the time as a mental aberration, but the more I’ve thought about it, the less sure I am that the rational explanation I’ve clung to isn’t the greater delusion.
It was in the Lake District again, this time in 1981. I’d set out to drive from the town of Windermere, to Coniston. The obvious route is to take the Windermere Ferry, then drive to Hawkshead. Just after Hawkshead, the road continues northwards to Ambleside and to get to Coniston, you have to turn left at a fairly obvious junction, where you pick up a road that takes you over the fells and drops you down into Coniston. On this occasion, however, the junction wasn’t there.
I wasn’t that familiar with the layout of the Lakes in those days, having only been driving for a few years and had just begun to explore my local geography. I knew there was supposed to be a junction because the road-map told me so, and I guessed I’d merely driven past it by mistake. Maybe it was a small turning and easily missed? I turned around and came back at it from the opposite direction, being extra vigilant this time. There was still no junction, no signposts for Coniston,… nothing, just an unbroken line of hedgerows with meadows beyond. I turned around and tried again: still nothing!
I lost count of the number of times I drove to and from Hawkshead looking for that road. I remember eventually pulling over into a lay by and trying to shake my head clear of the mixture of frustration and confusion, telling myself to take a deep breath and pull myself together because the road was definitely there – I was just blind to it somehow. But it was no good. That day, the junction did not exist for me.
I did eventually get to Coniston, but only by taking a twenty mile detour.
I’ve since driven the road over to Coniston dozens of times, and whenever I see the junction near Hawkshead I’m convinced I could not have simply overlooked it because it’s such an obvious thing, well flagged by signposts in both directions – and you’d have to be really blind to miss it. What do you do after an incident like that? Well, you blame yourself for being stupid, because what other explanation could there be?
It’s perhaps not surprising that I’ve always been interested in this kind of tale. Judging by the anecdotes, such experiences can be relatively short-lived, lasting no more than a few minutes, or they can be full-blown interactions with an alternate reality lasting several hours, or even overnight in the case of travellers who have apparently found hospitality in mysterious, non-existent hotels.
If true, I don’t know what these incidents tell us about the nature of reality, but what they do suggest to me, as a writer of fiction, is that one need not be overly dramatic in portraying the way characters can slip between worlds in our fantasy stories. I tend to avoid fantastic machines or wormholes or pixie spells, because there’s a greater probability that it happens seamlessly and spontaneously. You just get in your car and drive along the familiar old route, except suddenly your turning isn’t there any more. You’ve crossed a divide into another universe. You’ve no idea how you did it, nor how you’re going to get back.
The fascination of these experiences for me lies in their psychological plausibility. The geography, the environment and the people you might meet all appear quite normal to our senses. The experience might leave us shaken, but there is never any doubt that the alternate reality exists in a very “real” sense to us; it’s tangible, we can interact with it, people speak to us, they serve us drinks, they do not look at us as if we’re strange,…
The most remarkable thing is that there’s a strongly held belief among physicists that there may indeed be alternate versions of the reality we know, an infinite number of them actually. Every time probability comes into play, reality splits. Toss a coin and you create two separate realities, one where the coin falls down heads, and another where it falls down tails. This is the Many Worlds interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. However, although many physicists accept it at least as a theoretical possibility, they also tell us the theory rules out any chances of our being aware of those alternate realities, that the apparent line of our own conscious experience through time always plots a coherent course. We do not for example buy ourselves a red car one day, then wake up the following morning to find it is blue. There may indeed be a universe where the car is blue, but we can have no knowledge of it because it would be inconsistent with the version of reality we have already chosen.
Stories of time-slips would seem to challenge this view. They suggest that sometimes conscious awareness can indeed blunder into alternate realities, and then for a short time at least the logical consistency of our personal experience breaks down.
Or they could all just be tall tales.
* for a fuller account of this strange tale see the case of the vanished hotel recounted in: “The Personality of Man” by G.N.M. Tyrell 1947 (free download from the internet archive and a first class book on psychical research)