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.
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What I’ve been reading this season | Summer 2021

Climate Crisis

Our climate change turning point is right here, right now.

An article by Rebecca Solnit that examines our inability to recognise the impending climate crisis without a tangible catastrophe as we make our transition into the anthropocene era.

Just how historic was Western Canada’s heat wave? Nothing can compare.

An article from The Tyee outlining the devastating impact of the “heat dome” conditions experienced in North America in June and July 2021.

A heatwave thawed Siberia’s tundra. Now, it’s on fire.

A National Geographic article examining the devastating impact of fire in the boreal forests and tundra peatland regions of northern Siberia, ecosystems that lie over frozen permafrost soils.

We’re here to see the Great Doomed Thing.

A heartfelt longform essay by Robert Moor reconciling personal tragedy, as his partner survives a near-death experience, with a recuperation visit to a fragile ecosystem, and examining the idea that travel is heavy with personal meaning and ecological consequence.

Rewilding and Regeneration

Regeneration at Mar Lodge Estate.

Andrew Painting, Seasonal Ecologist for National Trust for Scotland at Mar Lodge Estate, the largest National Nature Reserve in the UK, located in the heart of the Cairngorms, describes the changes happening on a walk in Glen Quoich, Clais Fhearnaig and Glen Lui.

The Bleak Industrial Beauty of Scotland’s Heather Moorlands.

In an extract from his latest book, Stephen Rutt examines the intensive management of heather moorland for grouse shooting through muirburn, and the impact on the ecology of our uplands.

The Willow Walk: Why a team of volunteers carried 3,000 saplings into the Cairngorms

At the beginning of June, on a sparklingly clear day, I was one of the volunteers to lend a hand to transporting a few thousand downy willow saplings over the Cairngorm plateau to their new home in the Loch Avon basin. Sydney Henderson of Cairngorms Connect describes the project.

Let Kinloch Castle fall into curated decay, and become the ruin Scotland needs.

An interesting proposal from Fraser Macdonald, to recognise the continued costly upkeep of a piece of built heritage, a decadent folly, is unsustainable, and a move to managed decline, curated decay, would seem logical. And might just rock the established order in heritage conservation.

The Great Outdoors

New to outdoor adventure in Britain? Here’s how to keep yourself safe.

An excellent article by Ash Routen encouraging us to take responsibility for their own safety in the outdoors and develop a sense of self reliance as they push their boundaries. Timely too, with the number of people discovering their love of hillwalking, camping, and other outdoor activities on the increase.

‘It is treated as a commodity to be conquered.’ Can mountain tourism ever be truly sustainable?

A thoughtful piece on the damage caused to fragile mountain environments by mass tourism by Nick Drainey, and a potential slow travel solution in the form of the ecomuseum concept.

Connecting People and Places: A Policy Statement on Rangering in Scotland

A document produced by Nature Scot on the tangible benefits of an effective family of Ranger services across Scotland.

What I’ve loved this season | Summer 2021

Where I’ve been and what I’ve done

In early June, I was part of a team from the Cairngorms Connect project partners that carried 3,000 tiny trees up onto the Cairngorm plateau, to their new home in the Loch Avon basin. The downy willow (Salix lapponum) saplings are rare trees, which can survive in the low temperatures and high winds, and an important species in the montane scrub habitat of the upper slopes of the mountains.

Laden down with willow saplings on the plateau.

Grazing pressure from deer and other animals mean only a few scattered plants remain, often in the most inaccessible locations, and too isolated from each other to guarantee successful reproduction. The idea behind planting the new saplings is to give the species a fighting chance, and attempt to safeguard the future of the montane scrub zone as part of a larger-scale habitat regeneration project. Read more about our day here.

The crags of Hell’s Lum and the Allt Coire Domhain in spate with snowmelt.
Looking back down into the Loch Avon basin at the tiny patch of green of the willows cached for planting the following day.
Continue reading “What I’ve loved this season | Summer 2021”

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.
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What I’ve been reading this season | Winter 20/21

A collection of interesting, thought-provoking, and beautiful essays, articles and blog posts from around the internet I’ve found or were shared with me over the past few months. This season, it’s mostly been pieces that examine the balance between different forms of recreation and conservation, and the perceptions we hold of certain activities versus their realities, that I want to pass on to you.

Mountain Matters

Is the first winter ascent of K2 a turning point for Sherpa mountaineering?

Reporting on the historic winter first ascent of K2, Mark Horell examines the collaborative summiting by a team of Nepalese climbers, and reflects on the often overlooked presence of Sherpas in the history of high-altitude mountaineering.

Can we see past the myth of the Himalaya?

Akash Kapur explores the notion that our romantic perceptions of the high Himalaya obscure the realities of the people who make the region home, and how histories, geographies, and ecologies or mountain areas are often shaped by expectations.

Is it time to stop climbing mountains? Obsession with reaching the summit is a modern invention

An interesting piece by Dawn Hollis that dives into mountain history, mountaineering, and managing mountain environments against the backdrop of the global climate crisis. Are we prepared to ask ourselves hard questions about factors that drive us to stand on summits, and the sacrifices we’re willing to make to do so?

Hard Knocks on Ben Nevis

The remarkable Gwen Moffat shares a valuable lesson on walking the fine line between difficult and deadly.

Killing in the Name of

The Deer Cull Dilemma

A longform essay from 2018 by Cal Flynn on the culling of deer in the Scottish Highlands, that dives deeply into the local and national politics of killing for conservation, slaughter tourism, the culture and tradition of sporting estates, and the long-standing inequalities of land ownership and community participation.

How the Shooting Industry is Exploiting the Legacy of the Clearances

Reducing the number of red deer in the Scottish Highlands is a necessary step in the ecological restoration of the landscape, but can be seen as an unpalatable activity. David Lintern reports on the thought-provoking film The Cull for TGO Magazine.

Who Wants to Shoot an Elephant?

A masterful longform piece by Wells Tower, exploring the mindset of those participating in trophy hunting, and the ethics of commercial hunting for charismatic species as a tool for wildlife management in conservation. It includes a powerful description of the death of an elephant.

Staying with a Hunter Showed Me Greenland Beyond the Tourist Brochures

Nancy Campbell writes about living with subsistence hunters in western Greenland as a rapidly-changing world reshapes their traditional knowledge and experiences.

A Dark Miracle in the Forest of Dean

In most of the UK the likelihood of encountering large animals with the potential to cause us harm is very limited. Chantal Lyons explores where potential wildlife encounters are shaped by fear rather than wonder, and the rewilding of our senses.

Remembering Barry Lopez

Best known for the seminal Arctic Dreams, a natural history of northern lives and landscapes, and how these shaped and have been shaped by human experience. Lopez died from cancer in December 2020.

Why the World Needs Barry Lopez

A deeply thoughtful profile of the writer and his last book by Kate Harris. Horizon explores the almost unbearable beauty of our planet through moments gleaned from Lopez’s lifetime, and contemplates the point where true places meet myth and speculation, where earth, sky, sea, ice and sunlight merge.

My goal that day was intimacy—the tactile, olfactory, visual, and sonic details of what, to most people in my culture, would appear to be a wasteland.

Barry Lopez

Love in a Time of Terror: On Natural Landscapes, Metaphorical Living, Warlpiri Identity

Powerful words from Barry Lopez about turning ecological grief into fierce passion, and passion into advocacy for the natural world on our besieged planet.

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 been reading this season | Autumn 2020

Another small collection of interesting, thought-provoking, and beautiful essays, articles and blog posts from around the internet I’ve found over the past few months that I want to share with you. This season, they’ve mainly been inspired by thoughts of Antarctica, the Arctic, and the coming winter.

Heading South

How Prosperity Transformed the Falkland Islands

A masterful travel piece about the Falkland Islands by Larissa MacFarquhar, diving deeply into changes that have occurred over the past 30 years or so. One of the best destination profiles I’ve ever read.

Scenes from Antarctica

A slideshow of photographs from across the Antarctic continent, highlighting the human presence in the region.

What the future of polar travel looks like

A Condé Nast Traveler article from early in the summer looking at the prosepect of a 2020/21 Antarctic tourist season in the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, and the knock-on impacts of cancelling a 2020 summer season in the Arctic.

What will happen to the 7th Continent?

The uncertainty of a 2020/21 Antarctic tourist season in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic may be the necessary pause to spark conversations about the future of the industry. This piece by Bella Lack asks questions about other potential consequences of this season.

200 years ago people discovered Antarctica, and promptly began profiting by slaughtering some of its animals to near extinction

In the two centuries since its discovery, Antarctica has seen a range of commercial, scientific, and diplomatic activity. This blog post from The Conversation journal looks at the ways natural resources have been exploited over time, and the impact of changes.

Blue whale sightings off South Georgia raise hopes of recovery

In positive news, a whale survey expedition recorded 58 sightings of Blue Whales, and numerous accoustic detections, around South Georgia in 2020, where the marine mammals were all but wiped out by the whaling industry.

The Other Polar Place

A mission to unearth the wreck of the Nova Zembla

An account of the expedition to hunt for the wreck of a Dundee whaling ship lost in the Canadian High Arctic by Matthew Ayre, sparked by a simple note in a historic ship’s logbook.

My Midlife Crisis as a Russian Sailor

A longread essay by Andrea Pitzer detailing a research trip in the wake of 16th century polar explorer Willem Barents, and the unexpected wild pleasure of a voyage completely under sail.

Reindeer at the End of the World

A beautifully atmospheric piece by Bathsheba Demuth detailing the collision of Soviet ideology with the nomadic lives of Chukchi reindeer herders, tuned to the natural cycles of the tundra.

Life inside the Arctic

A captivating National Geographic photoessay by Jennifer Kingsley and Eric Guth that travels across the Arctic, meeting people living and working in the far north, and reframing the perception of the Arctic as a remote, isolated and uninhabited region.

Winter is coming

Dreading a dark winter? Think like a Norwegian

An examination of the mindset that helps residents in areas experiencing the polar night get through the darkness of winter by cultivating resilience and inner strength.

The Best Rain in Literature

Who am I kidding? I’m going to be in Scotland this winter, and while there’s a chance of crisp, bright snow days, more than likely it’s going to be driech. So here’s a few beautiful paragraphs from great authors and poets to help me learn to appreciate the rain.

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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What I’ve been reading this season | Summer 2020

A small collection of interesting, thought-provoking, and beautiful readings from around the internet I’ve found over the past season, that I want to share with you.

Coronavirus Pandemic

An interesting piece on the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic by Malcolm Gladwell, with an in-depth examination of the challenges of viral archaeology.

A fascinating blog post from Vanessa Spedding which dives deeply into the psychology and philosophy of the turning point in our lives brought by the imposition of a COVID-19 lockdown.

Eva Holland explores how our resilience to trauma can be cultivated and strengthened, both at an individual and a community scale.

Travel and Tourism

A long read from the Guardian newspaper exploring the impact of COVID-19 on the future of the global tourism industry, the hit to local economies, and ways to reinvent the sector in a more sustainable model.

The sudden, melancholy realisation of a future without travel, when it was the definitive factor that shaped your livelihood and nourished your soul.

A piece from the Washington Post in June that summed up the appeal of the late chef and travel writer Anthony Bourdain, particularly his understanding that food was a common language to share stories across cultures and experiences.

Nature, Wildlife and the Outdoors

Endurance runner Rosie Watson explores opportunities for new ways of working and living in a time of climate crisis and environmental change, following the enforced pause of the COVID-19 pandemic and national lockdowns.

An informative post by Becky Angell about taking the first steps towards gaining the Mountain Leader qualification, particularly the important prep work you can do when you can’t get out to the hills.

Revelling in the sight of planets and galaxies, as well as nocturnal nature Matt Gaw shares the thrill of hiking at night.

Lucy Wallace shares an account of her return to the hills following lockdown, and the full-on sensory joy of being back outdoors in a familiar wild place.

Scotland

Merryn Glover shares insights and encounters garnered from her experience as the first writer-in-residence in the Cairngorms National Park.

An article marking the 175th Anniversary of the formation of the Scottish Rights of Way and Access Society (ScotWays), and landmark legal challenges that ensured continued protection of ancient drove roads and passes through the Cairngorms.

A response to a newspaper article forecasting the death of the Gaelic language in Scotland by Charles (Teàrlach) Wilson, posing questions about deeper impacts of tourism on rural and island communities, and how people are central to rewilding a landscape.