This newest edition of Armchair Travel steps away from previous form, to bring you inspiration and escape from the everyday through some of the podcasts I’ve enjoyed.
I love the flexibility that listening to podcasts and audiobooks gives. Unlike with reading a book, I can get deeply engrossed in a story or conversation as I walk or run, drive my car, or soak in the bath. (I’m quite obsessive about the condition of my books*, and there’s no way I’d allow anyone, even myself, to risk taking them into the steamy, damp bathroom). I even listen to podcasts while I’m working as a bosun on a ship, perched aloft in the rigging to serve, seize, and whip.
*Fold corners over? You’re now on the list of people I don’t lend books to, along with other barbarians like my Dad and my oldest friend Shel.
So here are five of my favourite podcasts to travel without moving.
From Our Own Correspondent.
Longform journalism podcast from the BBC that blends travel reportage, political analysis, and stories that lie behind recent headlines. I love listening to this on Radio 4 as part of my Saturday mornings when I’m home, for the content, but also for the lessons in how to present an engaging piece of writing. Listen live to BBC Radio 4, or follow here.
Presented by three self-proclaimed “history and geography geeks”, the 80 Days podcast is dedicated to discovering lesser-known countries and territories around the world, through their history, politics, landscapes, and culture, including places like Rapa Nui, Sápmi, Birobidzhan**, and the Kuril Islands. Dive in to the podcast here.
**Yeah, me neither.
Travel Tales Beyond the Brochure.
The Barefoot Backpacker dives into a different theme in each episode, talking about concepts like why bucket lists can be a bad idea, reverse culture shock, or travelling in your home town, as well as offbeat destinations like Vanuatu. Follow the conversations here.
A podcast bringing forth voices of women doing things outdoors, from exploration and adventure, working in outdoor industries, arts and music, to environmental awareness and activism. It has a strong North American influence, but reaches out to cover women around the world. Find it here.
Presented by an experienced polar tour leader and a nature photographer, this podcast covers the colder corners of the globe. Topics have somewhat of a science and exploration focus, ranging from the Global Seed Vault in Spitzbergen, the history of the whaling industry, how to walk in snowshoes, marine mammal sex, and where exactly Santa Claus lives. Find it here.
You can find all these podcasts through their own websites or via various playing platforms like itunes, Google Play, Stitcher, and Spotify.
Which travel podcasts do you follow?
Leave me your recommendations in the comments below.
I’ve just returned to the UK after several weeks at sea on Blue Clipper, crossing from Norway to England, and on to Portugal, followed up by a few weeks of maintenance work based on the Algarve coast.
Norway is my favourite country and I loved visiting new places on this trip, starting with Bodø, and crossing the Arctic circle as we headed south to Ålesund. I also revisited familiar ground around Haugesund and Karmøy, when we ended up storm-bound in Skudeneshavnfor a week longer than expected.
The voyage was amazing for wildlife encounters; migrating barnacle geese, eider ducks and other birds heading southwards, enormous sea eagles on every island, sharks cruising by on the surface, basking seals, pods of porpoises, dolphins, pilot whales. Sparking bioluminescence mirroring the night’s stars. And as we crossed the Bay of Biscay, a day or so north of Camariñas, two magnificent fin whales broke the surface on our starboard side.
I’ve never really been one for sunshine holidays, so the Algarve has never really been on my travel radar until now. I was really pleased to find that away from resorts (and in the shoulder season) there’s some really beautiful and wild parts of the coast, near Alvor and Sagres, estuaries and saltmarshes filled with birdlife, and even storks roosting on every tower in town. And Portuguese food is pretty good too.
Back in the UK I’ve been fortunate to get a couple of short trips in the time I’ve been back, with a couple of days in the Peak District near Leek, and a few more in Church Stretton to hike in the Shropshire Hills, brush up on my navigation skills, and appreciate the stunning autumn colours.
What I’ve done:
Since returning to Bedfordshire, I’ve joined the weekly parkrun at my nearby country park. It’s been so long since I’ve been running, and I’m still getting over a knee injury, so I’m starting from the beginning again, but I really enjoy the sociability of the runs.
I’ve been developing an idea for a podcast, which I hope to launch next month. So when I get a moment, it’s filled up with working: reading, researching, and writing. Watch this space for more news.
I’ve also pulled out all my hiking gear, waterproof clothing, and sailing oilskins to give them all a proper deep clean, and coating with Nikwax waterproofing treatment ready for winter. I hope the effort will pay off and keep me dry and warm through the months ahead.
Do bears run in these woods?
Parkrun timing chip
My autumn love list:
Book: I’ve been remotely discovering the Scottish islands over the last couple of months, with several of the books I’ve read. But When I Heard the Bell: The Loss of the Iolaire by John MacLeod has been the one that’s lingered longest in my mind. An account of the tragic loss of the ship returning demobbed WWI soldiers and seamen home to the islands for Hogmanay, and the long shadow cast by the worst peacetime maritime loss in British waters.
Podcast: Dan Snow’s History Hit, which does exactly what is says on the tin. Each is a short but deep dive into a specific event or idea from history. With the hundredth anniversary of the armistice that ended WWI in November, my recent interest has been mainly in the episodes covering that period. Which brings me on to…
Film: They Shall Not Grow Old, a documentary film by Peter Jackson that tells the story of WWI from the British point of view, using old film archives and recorded interviews. The moment that the images on screen transition from black and white to colourised 3D footage is simply spine-tingling.
Dressed for the chill
What I’ve loved this autumn
Clothing: Since returning from the Algarve to Bedfordshire, I’ve embraced the chill to get out and make the most of my favourite season. That means warm woollen sweaters, including my favourite knit from Finnisterre, cosy socks, and a new pair of gloves from Rab. I’ve also been able to dig out my flannel pyjamas for enjoying toasty evenings in.
Equipment: With the clock change last month and nights drawing in, I’ve found myself out in the dark often, and my Petzl Tikka+ headtorch has become one of the things I use most. As a lightweight lamp, with a red light, it’s great for moving around a ship at night or going on evening runs, however I think I might look into upgrading to something more powerful for hiking in the dark, like one from LED Lenser.
I’ve also found my Thermos food flask, which is perfect for packing a warming lunch of soup, stew or pasta while I’m out and about. It’s one of my cold weather essentials.
Treats: Autumn always means mince pies. They’re usually available from around the time of my birthday in September, and I buy a selection from the different stores to work out which is my preferred mince pie for the season. I’m still in the testing stage this year, as I’ve been scoffing pastéis de nata in Portugal until recently.
I’m planning on a much quieter few months over the winter, spending time back up in northeast Scotland visiting friends and family. I’m hoping that there will be plenty of time to walk along the coast, and take a few trips into the mountains, around the projects I’ll be working on.
I’m also going to get stuck into the planning for my next big adventure, looking at maps, blog posts, and guides. In May 2019, I’m going to be taking part in the TGO Challenge, a self-supported crossing of Scotland from west to east. Participants choose their own start and finish points, and plan their route between the two. This will be my second attempt at the TGO, so I’ve some unfinished business to deal with, plus it’s the 40th Anniversary of the challenge.
Thanks for following along with These Vagabond Shoes.
You can keep up to date with my travel and adventures (and vague rambling ideas) on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Here’s to fair seas and following winds.
I’d love to hear about what you’ve been up to this season, or any plans you have for the season ahead. Let me know in the comments below.
This instalment of the Armchair Travel series is brought to you with a healthy dose of vitamin sea.
Like travelling (and sailing), these books could bring you complete escapism, teach you new skills, and ideas or throw you in at the deep end. So hoist the mainsail and catch the wind, and head off into the sunset with ten of my favourite books about sailing adventures…
Sailing Alone Around the World – Captain Joshua Slocum
The single-handed circumnavigation of the globe Slocum made on his sloop Spray was the first time such a voyage had been made. Sailing more than 46,000 nautical miles, crossing the Atlantic three times and the Pacific once, long before radar and satellite, the understated and direct writing isn’t overwhelmed by the extraordinariness of the achievement.
The Kon Tiki Expedition – Thor Heyerdahl
This is my most favourite book ever, and I first read it when I was around 10 years old. More about the adventure than sailing, this is the account of Thor Heyerdahl and his companions taking a balsa raft more than 4000 miles across the Pacific from Peru to the Tuamoto archipelago. I was really interested by the way the crew handled the challenges, excitement, danger, and boredom of the voyage.
We, the Drowned – Carsten Jensen.
I loved this book, but I think it will be a challenge to explain why. The story of the seafarers of Marstal, Denmark, from the golden age of sail to the end of the Second World War, from Scandinavia to North America to the islands of the South Pacific. Despite the epic scope of the book, the pacing is tight, and twists and turns in the plot unexpected. The writing is beautiful and thoughtful, and the book is rich in historic detail, but it is so much more than the sum of its parts.
Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome
A classic children’s book set in the English Lake District in the 1920s, this is the tale of an idyllic summer of adventures, friendship, and imagination for the children of two families and their sailing dinghies. Nancy Blackett is my childhood hero, and after watching the film so many times, I can’t run through a meadow without throwing in a tack.
The Brendan Voyage – Tim Severin
Using medieval texts as a guide, experimental archaeologist, adventurer and writer Severin constructed an ox-hide curragh and traces what may have been the first European landfall in North America, around 500 years before Norse settlements and a thousand years before Columbus. Weathering storms and treacherous conditions, close encounters with marine life, and living in the most basic of conditions. A truly remarkable undertaking, and an insight into medieval boatbuilding technology that is little heard about.
The Last Grain Race – Eric Newby
In 1938, Newby, then aged 18, quit his job at an advertising firm, and signed-on as crew on the windjammer Moshulu, to sail from Ireland to Australia, round the Cape of Good Hope, and back again via Cape Horn. The Great Grain Race of 1939 was the last, with the outbreak of war later in the year. Life at sea was hard, physically and mentally, and tensions grow with the weather. Bawdy anecdotes of brawls and benders are balanced out with lush, lyrical descriptions of wind, waves and wildlife. The book helpfully includes a sail plan and rigging diagram so you can keep track of topgallants, flying jibs and spankers.
One Wild Song – Paul Heiney
Writer and broadcaster Heiney’s son Nicholas, a keen sailor and poet, took his own life aged 23 after years of living with depression. Together with his wife, journalist and sailor Libby Purves, Heiney pays tribute to Nicholas, and aims to connect with happier memories, by setting out for Cape Horn, considered the Everest of sailing. A powerful and moving account of processing grief, beautifully written and thought provoking.
Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time – Dava Sobel
For centuries seafaring navigators could fix their latitude accurately with a sextant, but the calculation of longitude was far more prone to error. The British Admiralty established a prize for the first person to develop a technique, thus ensuring their continued naval superiority, leading to John Harrison’s forty-year quest to build the most reliable chronometer of the time. A classic of the history of science.
This Thing of Darkness – Harry Thompson
A fictionalised life of Captain Robert FitzRoy of the Royal Navy, commander of HMS Beagle, and pioneer of meteorology, this superbly written book is captivating from the start, and filled with historic details. It traces FitzRoy’s voyages to chart the coasts of South America, and introduces a young Charles Darwin, trainee cleric and keen geologist, engaged as a gentleman companion to the captain on the second voyage. The two men discuss, debate, observe, and speculate, on a range of themes, until profound differences in their beliefs eventually drives a wedge through their friendship, exacerbated by their receptions by society on their return.
Against the Flow: The First Woman to Sail Solo the ‘Wrong Way’ around the World – Dee Caffari
More people have walked on the moon than have made a successful solo westabout circumnavigation, against prevailing winds and currents, and in 2006 Dee Caffari was the first woman to do so. Stepping out of the comfort of a secure job, to face physical hardship, sleep deprivation, and the unpredictability of the weather, this is an inspiring account of her adventure.
Have you enjoyed any of these books?
Which salty adventures would you recommend for me?
I’d love to hear from you; let me know what you think in the comments.
For the second edition of my Armchair Travel series, I’m going back to nature.
Inspired by the Wildlife Trust’s #30DaysWild campaign, I’ve been thinking about some of the nature writing that has inspired me over the years. Not just to travel and spend time outdoors, but in my chosen career: I’ve worked in wildlife and nature conservation as a ranger and environmental education officer for several years.
So lace up your hiking boots and grab your field glasses, in this instalment we’re heading for a close encounter with ten books to go wild with…
The Wild Places – Robert Macfarlane
Macfarlane pleads the case for wildness in our lives, from wide-open spaces, mountain peaks, and remote islands, to a just a bit of time to stop and stare, at the birds flying overhead, moss growing from a crack in the pavement, the small things. The things that make us feel most alive. Find it here.
Ring of Bright Water – Gavin Maxwell
I watched the film one rainy weekend at my grandparent’s house in Caithness, and I fell in love with the otters. The book is even better, capturing the delight, sadness, and sense of awe that comes from living close to wild animals without being overly sentimental. You can buy it here.
The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples – Tim Flannery
Though the title sounds like this might be a textbook, the subject matter dense and the scope epic, Flannery is an engaging writer with a deep understanding of the topic. The second part of the book is challenging, sometimes uncomfortable reading, but provokes the reader to consider their own relationship to the natural world. Get the book here.
Orison for a Curlew – Horatio Clare
I’m a bit of a birder, a beginner still, but I’m growing to know more and more. This slim book seemed to jump out at me on my last trip to the bookshop, and I was spellbound by the first page alone. The slender-billed curlew is rare, perhaps only a rumour, and in beautiful writing Clare examines the meaning of extinction, and how some species can be gone before we know they really exist. You can find it here.
The Outrun – Amy Liptrot
It’s often said that nature is the greatest healer, and this book is a celebration of the windswept nature of Orkney and the balm it provides Liptrot on her road to sobriety. It’s also a meditation on leaving behind the familiar, and returning home after a long exile. Buy it here.
Gorillas in the Mist – Dian Fossey
Fossey was a challenging and uncompromising woman, and pioneered the study and conservation of the mountain gorillas of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire). It’s a hard book to read with the hindsight garnered from 30+ years since her murder in 1985, but ultimately rewarding in providing context to bucket-list dreams of mountain gorilla encounters. Find it here.
Winter Count – Barry Lopez
This beautiful collection of short stories are so grounded in the natural world, I didn’t realise they were works of fiction on my first reading. A collection of stunning writing and evocative images that contemplate the relationship between people and nature. Get the book here.
Sightlines – Kathleen Jamie
Another collection of short works, this time inspired by Scotland and Scandinavia, too beautifully written to be called essays and too sharp and insightful to be called reflections, which conjures up something wafty and vague to my mind. I wish I could write like this. Buy the book here.
The Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia – Piers Vitebsky
I love reindeer; like really, really love reindeer. Enough to holiday north of the Arctic circle in February, and to visit the Cairngorm herd every time I’m in the area. This book is a beautiful account of people, animals and place; a classic of ethnography. Get it here.
My Family and Other Animals – Gerald Durrell
No list of books about wildlife would be complete without Gerald Durrell, and this is the book that introduces most people (including me) to his, er, well… adventures. So laugh-out-loud funny in places, it’s almost rude to read it in public. If you don’t read any of the other recommendations in my list, you must read this one. Pick it up here.
Do you have a favourite piece of nature writing you can recommend to me?
I’d love to hear from you; let me know what you think in the comments.
I’m often asked why I feel the need to travel so often, so extensively, and to places that don’t really feature on the radar for many people as they plan their holidays (Hello Mam!). Often I can’t explain exactly why somewhere appeals to me, just that it does, and I can get there. So this is an attempt to draw together my thoughts, and give a bit of justification for developing this blog.
Travelling is the very soul of These Vagabond Shoes (pun totally intended!), and it’s my belief that the opportunities travel provides for new experiences, exposure to new ideas, and feeling that flux state of being on the move is a good thing for everyone.
Meeting other people, particularly people from a different culture or background to yourself, talking with them, listening to their stories, and sharing their food goes a long way to extending our understanding of each other, and diminishing that deep fear of the different and unknown. It also challenges our tightly-held perceptions, provokes questions, and tests our own resilience. It’s the first tentative steps towards changing the world for the better.
My hope, idealistic as it may be, is that you, dear readers of this blog, might start to think of opportunities available to you, to travel widely and openly, and embrace chances to step outside their comfort zone now and again. And for my friends that perhaps face greater barriers than most, the chance to join me vicariously on my way to some places they may be unlikely to ever visit.
So to that end, I’ve compiled an epic list of reasons I think that travel is a winner, inspired by my own experiences and those of other writers, bloggers, and people that I’ve met along the way. I might dip into it now and again, to take a deeper look at an idea, and it’s not a definitive list by any means, so expect it to grow over time too.
Let me know your thoughts in the comments below, or get in touch on social media.
Why should you travel?
Once the travel bug bites there is no known antidote, and I know that I shall be happily infected until the end of my life.
To break out of your comfort zone
To find the time to think
To escape from the everyday routine
To learn how to really relax
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.
To break down boundaries
To meet people from a different culture
To improve foreign language skills
To smash the stereotypes in your thinking
Wherever you go becomes a part of you somehow.
To heal, and rebuild what’s broken
To grow, exponentially, in confidence
To become a more flexible and adaptable person
To do something you’d never normally do, and be proud of that
Travel brings power and love back into your life.
To light a fire of creativity
To inspire new passions
To make the wine taste better (or whatever your poison is)
To sample new food tastes
If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. The extent to which you can walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food, it’s a plus for everybody.
Open your mind, get up off the couch, move.
To speak to new people and make new friends
To find the kindness of strangers
To meet face-to-face the things you’ve read about or seen on screen
To collect mementos and images to colour your everyday life
There are as many worlds as there are kinds of days, and as an opal changes its colours and its fire to match the nature of a day, so do I.
The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.
To get up close and personal with the natural world
To watch the sun rise, and set, on a different horizon
To be totally and completely awestruck
To follow in someone’s footsteps
To blaze your own trails
The world is big and I want to have a good look at it before it gets dark.
To fill the blank spaces in your geography knowledge
To give global politics a relatable backdrop
To make history live
To share stories about your home and your experience
Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.
To get more comfortable in your own company
To become more mature
To create stories to tell your children, and grandchildren
To remain young at heart, whatever your age
And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again – to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.
To trace your roots, and shake your branches
To be thankful for what you currently have
To remember just how lucky you are
To appreciate what waits for you at home
Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colours. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.
Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky
To change the path of your career, or your whole life
To overcome the fear
To be yourself
To live your best life, no regrets
… because there was nowhere to go but everywhere, keep rolling under the stars…
Welcome to the first instalment of my Armchair Travel series!
In this occasional series I’ll aim to bring you inspiration for your travels, and transport you away from everyday life, through some of my favourite books. Like a wee holiday, but without leaving the comforts of your home.
For me, reading has always provided so many of the things I get from travelling: being exposed to new ideas and ways of thinking; an insight into an unfamiliar culture; being part of a challenging adventure; or complete and total escapism.
Books, like a sailing ship, could take you anywhere. So throw off the bowline and let yourself be transported with ten of my favourite books to take you in to the icy north…
Arctic Dreams – Barry Lopez
I love books like this, ones that outwardly take a single topic, but are packed with everything you can think of. History, geography, science, natural history, spirituality, indigenous culture, adventure, travel; all drawn together in Lopez’ beautiful prose. To be dipped into again and again. Find it here.
North Star of Herschel Island: The Last Canadian Arctic Fur Trading Ship – R. Bruce Macdonald
Sailing ships might become a bit of a theme through this blog. This is the story of the last of the ships trading in the Canadian Arctic, and a record of a way of life changed forever. You can buy it here.
Dark Matter – Michelle Paver
A chilling horror story set in a scientific research base in an abandoned mining camp in Spitzbergen, just before the outbreak of WWII. The waning of the moon in the depth of the polar night plunge Jack into full-blown terror. You can find it here.
Far North and Other Dark Tales – Sara Maitland
A deliciously dark collection of short stories that draw inspiration from fairy tales, bible stories and traditional myths, with a strong focus on the female experience. The title story is a reworking of an Inuit legend. You can get it here.
The Last Viking: The Life of Roald Amundsen – Stephen R. Brown
We tend to know Amundsen as “the one that got there first”, thwarting Scott’s attempt at the South Pole, but the Norwegian was the ultimate polar explorer. Inspired by Nansen and learning skills from indigenous peoples in the Arctic, he was leader of the first voyage to traverse the Northwest Passage, navigated a route through the Northeast Passage, and crossed the North Pole in an airship. He disappeared on a mission to rescue the crew of another airship returning from the Pole. Get the book here.
The Long Exile – Melanie McGrath
The documentary film Nanook of the North revealed the lives of Unagava Inuit to the world. This book reveals the dark aftermath; the forced relocation of Inuit families to the barren shores of Ellesmere Island. A shameful episode of recent history, the shockwaves of which echo through the generations to today. You can find it here.
The Northern Lights – Philip Pullman
The first part of the Dark Materials trilogy (also known as The Golden Compass in North America), this is the north of dreams and fantasy. Ice bears in armour made from sky-iron; lying, tale-telling Arctic foxes; ancient witches flying of sprays of cloud pine; fierce Tartars scouring the tundra with their wolf dæmons; and the mysterious and terrible aurora. Get it (and the rest of the trilogy) here.
To Build A Fire – Jack London
I read White Fang when I was about twelve years old, and Call of the Wild not long after. The wild and brutal Yukon setting burned into my imagination. To Build a Fire is just one of the greatest short stories ever written. Find it here.
Farthest North – Fritjof Nansen
I have a massive crush on Nansen; there’s no denying it. I’m fascinated by so much about him; all his adventures, his thirst for scientific knowledge, and his humanitarian work. This is the story of the Fram expedition, to take a ship through the polar sea locked in the ice, and reach the top of the world. And on the way, demonstrate excellent leadership and establish the science of oceanography. Get the book here.
The Blue Fox – Sjón
Fabulous, in the original sense of the word, and beautifully poetic, the atmosphere of this novella is as dark and chilling as the Icelandic winter in which it is set. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it will transport you to a different world. You can find it here.
Which of these books have you enjoyed? Do you have any North themed recommendations for me?
I’d love to hear from you; let me know what you think in the comments.