Armchair Travel: 10 books telling the stories of cities

A selection of some of the best books that dive deeply into the daily lives of cities and the hidden worlds that lie within.

This instalment of Armchair Travel dives deeply into cities around the globe through rich and engaging histories, compelling travelogues, and works of fiction where the city setting is as much a character as the protagonists. These books really are the essence of armchair travel, capturing the character of a place and time yet unvisited.

Here are 10 of the best books that explore cities around the world, plus a bonus that looks into what makes an urban environment so alluring.
Continue reading “Armchair Travel: 10 books telling the stories of cities”

What I’ve loved this season | Spring 2021

Where I’ve been and what I’ve done

At the end of March I packed up my stuff to move house again, after a winter in Aberdeen, to relocate to Ballater, in the heart of the area I cover as part of my job as a seasonal ranger for the Cairngorms National Park. I’m glad to be back on Deeside, and have some fantastic locations to visit available right from my doorstep.

The weather early in spring was stunning; bright warm afternoons following crisp mornings where the temperatured dropped below freezing overnight. Perfect conditions to get out on some of the walks around Ballater, like the Seven Bridges route along the side of the River Dee.

Stopping by a pool on the riverside in Strathdee, near Braemar, to listen to the frog chorus. It’s hard to make out in the picture, but I counted over one hundred toads in the pool.
A wander up Glen Ey, near Braemar. Despite the low cloud and occasional drizzle, some excellent wildlife sightings from ground-nesting wading birds to soaring raptors overhead.
Continue reading “What I’ve loved this season | Spring 2021”

Armchair Travel: 10 books about lives we’ll never live

A selection of my favourite books about other people’s lives: those living traditional lives in remote communities; people living in unique circumstances as a result of conflict or disaster; and ways of life now long gone.

This edition of Armchair Travel is all about those lives less ordinary, experiences often far removed from our own everyday existance. These books explore different cultures from around the world, written by insiders as well as outside observers; lives in a state of transition and those being rebuilt after conflict and trauma; and snapshots of a traditional way of life now irreversibly changed.

Here are 10 books that bring an insight into a way of life that we’ll never live ourselves.
Continue reading “Armchair Travel: 10 books about lives we’ll never live”

What I’ve loved this season | Winter 20/21

Where I’ve been and what I’ve done

Well, the best laid plans and all that. At the start of the season I’d had ideas of visiting friends in the south of England for a long-overdue catch up, with perhaps a little holiday on the Isle of Wight. Lockdown in England in November, followed by a national lockdown across the UK from late December onward means I’ve been absolutely nowhere in the last three months, save a short visit to see my parents and sister in south Aberdeenshire on Christmas Day itself.

Sunrise over the North Sea from my parent’s garden on Christmas morning.
And an afternoon sunset later on Christmas day.

I relocated from Braemar to Aberdeen in December, so my activities have been limited to within the city boundaries, but it’s been great to explore parts of the city I haven’t been to for years and make new discoveries. Aberdeen is an incredible place for wildlife watching, and my winter sighting have included otters swimming in the River Don, roe deer in fields near the Bucks Burn and Kingswells, red squirrels in Hazlehead Park, and bottlenose dolphins hunting salmon in the mouth of the harbour.

Last views of Strathdee for the season, looking up towards Mar Lodge.
Continue reading “What I’ve loved this season | Winter 20/21”

What I’ve loved this season | Autumn 2020

Where I’ve been and what I’ve done

Autumn in the Cairngorms is absolutely sensational. The honey-scented, purple heather-clad hills of August fade to rust-brown as slowly the trees become the main attraction. Birch and bracken glow gold against the dark of the pines, and the woodlands blaze with reds and oranges. 

Autumn in the Cairngorms, on a woodland walk near Keiloch.

I had a little holiday around the area with friends that came to visit, staying in a holiday cabin on the other side of Braemar from where I live, and taking a campervan tour of the eastern Cairngorms and Aberdeenshire. I also arranged a couple of wildlife watching trips, going on a beaver watching trip in Perthshire (great success), and visiting Spey Bay to search for dolphins (no luck, though there was some great birdwatching at the river mouth).

Bow Fiddle Rock on the north Aberdeenshire coast.

My 40th birthday in September was a small family affair, the only opportunity for us to get together this year before Scotland’s COVID guidelines limited the size of groups we were able gather in. It was a joint celebration with my Dad and nephew Joe who had their birthdays in August, when the City of Aberdeen was in local lockdown and they were unable to have any visitors themselves. We had a BBQ in my parent’s garden to give enough space for physical distance between households, and fortunately the sun shone, and the windbreak I spent most of the morning constructing held up.

The final day of September was a golden respite from the first of the autumn storms, which left the signs of winter etched on the mountains. I made the long stomp up to Ben Avon and Beinn a’Bhuird from the Linn of Quoich on a frosty morning, arriving early enough to find a skin of verglas over the granite tor of Leabaidh an Daimh Bhuide and tiny pockets of snow behind tussucks on the plateau, sheltering from the low autumn sun.

The Glas Allt Mór waterfall below Clach a’ Cleirich.
Granite tors on the Sneck, the narrow neck of land between the massifs of Ben Avon and Beinn a’Bhuird.

My seasonal job with the Cairngorms National Park Authority came to an end at the beginning of November, which left me with some free time of my hands. I’ve been out exploring more of the areas that lie on the periphery of my usual patrol routes, making the most of the fair weather and trying to keep up with the amount of walking I was doing during the summer, usually between 10 and 15km per day. It’s going to be a bit of a challenge with the lure of the indoors in wet and wild weather.

I’ve always found it a bit harder to do things at this time of year, with the combination of short daylengths and wilder weather making me feel like curling up in bed and hibernating for the rest of the season. I’ve got a natural daylight lamp for the time I spend indoors on the computer, and I’ve been making the effort to spend at least some time outdoors every day this month, as I know how much benefit it brings me. I’m aiming keep it up all through the winter.

A few minutes on the beach at Benholm watching the surf at the turn of the tide.

My Autumn Love List

Books: This season, I’ve dived deep into history, reading up to improve my knowledge of things that happened locally, across the country, and how they interconnect with things happening further afield. My recent reads have been The Cairngorms: A Secret History by Patrick Baker, Scotland: A History from Earliest Times by Alastair Moffat, and Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga.

My other interesting reads from this season can be seen here.

Podcast: January this year marked the 200th anniversary of the first sightings of Antarctica, and the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust had planned a programme of events to celebrate the occasion. Due to the pandemic, those which could go ahead were shifted online and a new podcast, A Voyage to Antarctica, was created, with contributions from filmmaker Ruth Peacey, writer Sara Wheeler, and UKAHT’s CEO Camilla Nicol.

Clothing: In anticipation of winter, I’ve splashed out on a pair of the toastiest wool slippers from Glerups. After a day out walking in the hills, they’re a delight to slip my feet into to pad around the house in the evenings.

Self-care: I’ve picked up a lipsalve from Burt’s Bees to last through into the winter. It’s a lovely, tingly peppermint flavour.

A few of my favourite things from autumn 2020, preparing for a cosy winter.

Equipment: I started using a natural daylight lamp, the Lumie Vitamin L lightbox, in early October to help with seasonal affective disorder. I put it on for half an hour or so after my alarm sounds in the morning, and read a few pages of my book soaking in the light before getting up. And now I’m not going out to work everyday, I’ll put it on for an hour or so in the afternoon while I work on the computer.

Treat: It’s got to be mince pies. As they appear in the shops in late September, usually the week after my birthday, I try to get a selection of the different supermarket varieties for  a taste test, to work out my preferred brand for the rest of the season. Currently in the lead position are the ones from the Co-op, although the proximity of the shop has also had a big influence. The ideal accompaniment, for a wintery weekend afternoon, is an amaretto-laced coffee, with my favourite Bird & Wild blend.

What’s Next?

My plans to visit the New Forest and the Isle of Wight in November, then catch up with friends around the south of England have been put on hold again with the COVID lockdown in England. I’ll keep my fingers crossed things might improve by the New Year to allow me to reschedule.

I’ve got my fingers crossed for a bit of work in January, joining the refit of one of the boats I’ve worked on previously. And hopefully that will also bring the opportunity for a short holiday afterwards, though again that all depends on open travel corridors from the UK to Portugal.

In the meantime, I’ve thrown myself into planning a few long walks in my local area and further afield, completing a few online courses, and appreciating winter comforts close to home.

What have you been up to over the last season? How are you affected by the current COVID guidelines where you are?
Remember I’m always here if you need a friendly ear to listen; I’d really love to hear from you.

This post contains some affiliate links.  If you purchase through my link, I’ll make a small commission* on the sale at no additional cost to you.  These help me continue to run the site, providing tips and advice, and sharing stories from my adventures.  Thank you for supporting me.

*Maybe enough for a coffee.  Not enough for a yacht.

Armchair Travel: 10 Best Books about Disaster and Survival

A selection of the best non-fiction books about tragedy and disaster, survival against the odds, and adventures gone awry.

There are a few travel and adventure books I’ve read that make me really envious of the experiences described within. Expeditions I’d have loved to be part of and thrilling adventures I wish I’d had. Satisfying challenges with successful outcomes, taking place in locations I desperately want to explore for myself.

I’ve also read many books telling the story of devastating disasters, adventures gone way wrong, and epic accounts of survival against the odds. Tales that make me very glad that I wasn’t there in that place, at that time, doing that thing. Not in a gawking, voyeuristic way, but to marvel at the strength and adaptability of the people involved, and the enduring hope that many of them can hold on to through their ordeal.

Here are 10 of what I consider to be the best non-fiction adventure books about disaster, survival, and human resilience.

*Warning: there’s potentially a couple of spoilers in this list.*

Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Trek Home – Nando Parrado

I first encountered this story in the film Alive, reading the book by Piers Paul Read on which it was based shortly after. It’s probably the first story of this type I read, and it piqued my interest in these tales of human resilience in unimaginable circumstances.

The story of a rugby team, along with some of their friends and family, whose plane crashed into the high Andes in 1972 on the way between Uruguay and Chile, is perhaps one of the best-known survival stories.

Survivors were stranded on the mountainside for 72 days and forced into an unconscionable decision to avoid succumbing to their situation. Parrado is one of the survivors, and one of the pair that set out to find rescue for their friends, and this is a deeply personal account of his experience. Buy it here.

Touching the Void – Joe Simpson

Experienced climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates make a challenging first ascent of the west face of Siula Grande in the Huayhuash mountains of Peru, and run into difficulty on the descent. Simpson is injured and unable to climb down, relying on Yates to lower him on a rope. But a series of unfortunate events leaves them trapped on the mountain in deteriorating conditions, unable to see or communicate with each other, while roped together.

Unable to determine the fate of his friend, Yates is forced into the nightmarish decision to cut the rope and save his own life. Remarkably Simpson survives to tell the tale, and probe the huge psychological trauma resulting from the event. Find it here.

We Die Alone: A WWII Epic of Escape and Endurance – David Howarth

This book tells the story of Jan Baalsrud, a Norwegian resistance leader and commando during WWII. Following a botched raid on a Nazi installation in Northern Norway and the sinking of his vessel, he’s forced to swim ashore and flee into the Arctic hinterland at the end of the winter.

Evading capture for more than two months, he battled against snow blindness and frostbite, with cold injury leaving him unable to walk from the blizzard-lashed high plateau for 27 days, before he was able to make contact with Sami reindeer herders and plan an evacuation into neutral Sweden. Find it here.

438 Days: An Incredible True Story of Survival at Sea – Jonathan Franklin

In an incredible turn of events, missing Salvadoran fisherman Salvador Alvarenga made his way ashore on a remote atoll in the Marshall Islands, 14 months after his seven-metre long skiff disappeared off the coast of Mexico in a storm. With no sails or oars, and a broken radio, he and his fishing mate, Ezequiel Córdoba, drifted out into the Pacific.

The author carried out a series of interviews with Alvarenga, piecing together the events of the storm and subsequent 9,000 nautical mile drift, learning how he managed to find food and water, and avoid scurvy. He also probes into the fragile mental state of Alvarenga, especially following the death of Córdoba, and being passed by several ships that had the potential to be rescuers. Read it here.

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex – Nathaniel Philbrick

One the most notorious maritime disasters from the so-called golden era of the whaling industry, and said to have inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick (the device used to unravel the story in the fictionalised film of the book).

Using material from the memoirs of two survivors, the first mate of the ship and a teenaged cabin boy, Philbrick reconstructs the events leading to the destruction of the Essex by a wounded sperm whale, and their subsequent ordeal. Of the twenty crew to take to the open whaleboats, only eight survived the 90 days before they were rescued. Buy it here.

Raising the Dead: A True Story of Death and Survival – Phillip Finch

I bought this book for my ex, also my usual SCUBA diving buddy, while we were starting to get into wreck diving around the coast of the UK. We read it together and discovered exactly what our worst nightmare would be.

Two divers enter a cave system in the South African Kalahari known as Boesmansgat (the Bushman’s Hole), searching for evidence of a previous diver that had perished. They penetrated the flooded sinkhole to an incredible depth of 127 metres (886′), 127 METRES!!!!, which required a decompression time of several hours and flawless dive planning. Needless to say, it does not go well for the pair. Find it here.

Last Man Off: A True Story of Disaster, Survival and One Man’s Ultimate Test – Matt Lewis

A fast-paced and compelling account of the loss of an ancient and unseaworthy fishing vessel in the mighty Southern Ocean, written by the scientific observer placed on board. Fresh from graduating, marine biologist Lewis is the most inexperienced crew member on the ship, but plays a key role in the rescue of the others as they take to the life rafts in a severe storm.

He also writes on safety, security, and survival at sea, and on preparedness and training for working in one of the most inhospitable environments on earth, in an engaging way that is accessible for seasoned sailors and landlubbers alike. Buy it here.

127 Hours: Between a Rock and a Hard Place – Aron Ralston

I think most people will be aware of the consequences of Ralston’s notable self-rescue after he became trapped while hiking in a canyon, and that dramatic act is why the book features on this list. However, I find the character of Ralston hard to warm to and struggle with reading about his compulsion to seek out unnecessary risk in his outdoor activities.

I actually preferred the Danny Boyle directed film of 127 Hours, which cuts through a lot of the extraneous material of the book to the core of the survival story. Read the book before you see the film as you gain nothing from the other way round. Pick it up here.

Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic – Jennifer Niven

In 1921 Ada Blackjack, an Iñupiat woman, joined a team of five men on an expedition to Wrangel Island in the Chukchi Sea in a speculative attempt to claim the island for Canada (or the United Kingdom), backed by controversial explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson. After two years facing starvation, scurvy, and the disappearance of three of the team, the only survivors were Blackjack, and Vic, the expedition cat.

It’s rare to read an account of an expedition where the voices of indigenous people are central, and more so that of a woman. During her life, Stefansson and her rescuer, Harald Noice, created a media furore to attempt to exploit her story, causing her to retreat from the public eye. Niven creates a deep and respectful portrait of a remarkable woman. Buy it here.

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage – Alfred Lansing

This list would be incomplete without mention of Shackleton. The survival of the Endurance’s crew after the loss of the ship in the Antarctic pack ice, the subsequent voyage of the James Caird from Elephant Island to South Georgia, and the crossing of the island from King Haakon Bay to Stromness against all odds are the stuff of legend.

Lansing’s gripping account of the expedition is my favourite of the ones I’ve read, drawing on detailed first-hand accounts from surviving crew members and diary excerpts, to create an enthralling historical narrative and a fascinating study of leadership in the most challenging of conditions. Read it here.

Have you enjoyed any of these books?  Which epic adventures would you recommend for me?
I’d love to hear from you; let me know what you think in the comments.
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This post contains affiliate links.  If you purchase through my link, I will make a small commission* at no additional cost to you.  These help me to continue to run this site, providing tips and advice, and sharing stories from my adventures.  Thank you for supporting me.

*Maybe enough for a coffee.  Not enough for a yacht.

What I’ve loved this season | Spring 2020

Where I’ve been

Well, like most of us, the answer for this season is nowhere much.

lockdown_sunrise_1.1
The sun rising from the North Sea in early April. Taken from the end of the garden at my parent’s house while in lockdown in the UK.

I returned to the UK from Antarctica in mid-March, via Ushuaia and Buenos Aires, before spending a week in Cambridge to wrap up the season for the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust. We reached the UK just as international travel restrictions came into place, and followed the difficulties that our friends on ships faced from afar.

It was a challenging couple of weeks as we reconnected to the rest of the world and remembered how to do all the little everyday things that had been absent from our lives over those 110 days. On top of that was the added strangeness of adjusting to our new normal in the time of corona, and it now feels like it was just a lucid dream.

I headed up north to my parent’s place in Aberdeenshire, where I could live in the caravan at the end of the garden and be useful while they shielded my elderly granny in the house. Reuniting with family wasn’t the hugs and long conversations I’d imagined, but waving through the window as I stood outside in the garden, and chatted through WhatsApp.

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The limits of my lockdown home.

The COVID-19 lockdown in the UK was put in place the day I arrived home, and I’ve been here ever since.

What I’ve done

Over the Easter weekend, I took to the garden for a few nights of camping out. As well as being up to watch the sunrise and listen to the dawn chorus, it also prompted me to finally get round to fixing the slow puncture in my air mat.

benholm_garden_camping_2.1
Watching the sunrise and listening to the dawn chorus in a garden camp-out on a chilly April morning.

I’ve been really fortunate in that I live in a rural area, and have plenty of opportunities to get outdoors for exercise and to explore the nature on my doorstep. I’ve got a blog post in the works about that, which should go live at the end of June to include notes about #30DaysWild.

I used my time to volunteer for the Slow Ways project, an initiative to create a network of walking routes connecting settlements. Walking has immense benefits for health and wellbeing, for individuals and for communities, and integrating it into everyday life is a positive solution towards tackling the climate and ecological emergencies. I mapped around 50 routes in northern and northeast Scotland to contribute towards a total greater than 100,000km.

In mid-May, I should have been taking part in the 41st TGO Challenge, to cross Scotland from west to east. I’d decided on a more challenging route than last year, starting in Morar and taking in more hills on the way to Montrose. Instead, I joined with other would-be challengers in the first-ever #virtualTGOC, sharing stories and pictures from the last 40 years of the event and gathering inspiration for future years in the hills.

I was rather late to the sourdough party, but I was given a starter at the end of May and started to experiment. My first loaf could have done with a hatchet to break through the crust, but my cinnamon buns (Norsk kanelboller) were pretty good, and my rosemary and garlic focaccia was next level.

Around the same time, I was able to find work locally, starting as a fruit picker on a nearby farm. It’s not what I would choose to do, but at the moment it’s something, and will help to tide me over until my next opportunity for working or travelling is realised.

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Life in plastic. Working in the polytunnels on the farm.

My Spring love list

Book: With the extra time available, I’ve finally read several of the books that were lingering in my “to be read” pile for some time, including most of these. My favourite read so far this year has been Horizon by Barry Lopez.

Magazines: I’ve recently discovered Sidetracked magazine, which combines incredible adventure and outdoor photography with inspired long-form storytelling. Dipping in for a read is pure escapism.

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A few of my favourite thing from this Spring.

Film: Like everyone else, I’ve watched quite a few films during the lockdown. The one I’d most like to recommend was the incredible Climbing Blind, a documentary about Jesse Dufton as he aims to be the first blind person to lead a climb of the Old Man of Hoy, a sea-stack in Orkney. If you’re in the UK, you may still be able to catch it in the iPlayer.

Clothing: I really haven’t been wearing a great variety of things over the last couple of months. I’ve mainly been alternating between my fancy Seasalt pyjamas and Port Lockroy hoodie, and my running gear. It’s pretty strange wearing proper clothes again. And shoes, woah!

Equipment: Spending so much time on my own has been strange, after sharing the close living conditions of Port Lockroy and the even closer conditions on Irene of Bridgwater. I think its the quietness I find the hardest, so I love having the radio on in the background. I treated myself to a Roberts Play DAB digital radio, to make sure I can get BBC6Music as I read or write.

Before leaving for Antarctica I ordered a new case for my laptop but didn’t factor enough time for delivery. So on my return, I had a fabulous parcel waiting from Makers Unite, an inspiring Dutch social enterprise working with people from refugee backgrounds, teaching skills in product design and manufacture. My laptop case is made from recycled lifevests that were used in migrant travel.

Treats: It’s been hard avoiding the temptation of endless snacking during lockdown, so I’ve been making a conscious effort to be aware of the cookies, cakes, and chocolate I’ve been consuming. I’ve been setting a target of no sweet snacks until mid-afternoon, then stopping whatever I’m doing to make a pot of my favourite Russian Caravan tea to go with the treat.

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Sticky and delicious cinnamon buns.
What have you been up to over the last season? How has being in lockdown affected you?
I’m always here if you want to chat or leave a message in the comments below;
I’d love to hear from you.

This post contains some affiliate links.  If you purchase through my link, I’ll make a small commission* on the sale at no additional cost to you.  These help me continue to run the site, providing tips and advice, and sharing stories from my adventures.  Thank you for supporting me.

*Maybe enough for a coffee.  Not enough for a yacht.

8 Activities for Adventurers Staying at Home

A list of indoor activities and things to do around the home for outdoor and adventure lovers.

Though we’re encouraged to think of our current situation with the coronavirus lockdown as being safe while we’re at home, there’s no denying if you’re an outdoor type, you’ll inevitably find yourself feeling stuck at home. Denied that usual dose of adventure, there’s a serious risk of an outbreak of cabin fever.

So, given that there’s unlikely to be an immediate cure to our condition, I’ve compiled a list of activities that can bring the outdoors indoors, and help stave off longing aches for the hills, rivers, forests, and beaches for a while longer. They’ll help you stay mentally resilient, and get you prepared to get back out there when the time comes. They’re fun, and virtually all free, or at least affordable, so give them a go!

If you’ve got any of your own tips to share, let me know in the comments below!

Continue reading “8 Activities for Adventurers Staying at Home”

My Lockdown Reading List

Like many of you, the COVID-19 lockdown turned my life upside down.  Plans I’d made as I prepared to leave Antarctica have been completely shelved, any potential opportunities remain just that.  Both the travel and the outdoor industries where I’ve usually found work have had to shut up shop and furlough staff.  I’ve signed up as a volunteer, but it has taken time for organisations to process the volume of applications they’ve received.

So, I’ve encountered an abundance of idle time in the last week or so.  It’s been an unexpected chance to indulge in the things that are usually side-lined for more pressing tasks.  For me, it’s reading for pleasure.  In the last week, I’ve been able to immerse myself in a few good books to help fend off the cabin fever.

While lockdown has clipped my wings, and travel is an impossibility right now, a book can take the mind flying anywhere beyond the immediate four walls.  Here’s what I’ve read, and my to-do list for the coming weeks.

Continue reading “My Lockdown Reading List”

Armchair Travel: 10 Books to Explore Antarctica

I’ve compiled a list of my favourite books about Antarctica, including biographies, travelogues, and expedition tales. 

I’ve long had a fascination with Antarctica, being captivated by stories of exploration and discovery in Readers Digest books at my grandparent’s house on long Scottish summer afternoons. Primary school trips to see the polar vessel RRS Discovery in Dundee, the three-masted barque that took Scott and Shackleton on their successful first voyage south, and to the penguin enclosure in Edinburgh Zoo, where I met Sir Nils Olav (then just RSM of the Norwegian King’s Guard), further fuelled that interest.

So I’ve been in an absolute whirlwind of excitement since finding out I’ve finally got the opportunity to go for myself; the realisation of a long-burning ambition. I’m part of the team from the United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust that will be based at Port Lockroy, to run the famous Penguin Post Office, for the 19/20 season.

In preparation, I immersed myself in Antarctic-themed reading, and these are some of my favourite books. Until you get the chance for yourself, these books will transport you South. I’ve also rated each book by the amount of penguin content it contains, not as a comment on the quality of the writing. They’re all good books, Brent.

Continue reading “Armchair Travel: 10 Books to Explore Antarctica”