Armchair Travel: 10 Travel Writing Classics

These are some of my favourite classic travel books.

In this edition of Armchair Travel, I’ve curated a collection of some of the true classics of travel writing. The beauty of many of these travelogues is that they take us back to lands which no longer exist.

This is a selection of notable titles by some of the best-known names in the genre, many of which have inspired later writers and travellers. It includes well-known works seeded by mountaineering and polar expeditions, journals of travels in unusual circumstances and situations, and wry looks at more familiar places. It should be recognised that some of the content of the books listed and the ideas expressed within have aged much better than others.

Read on to dive into the inspiration that has fuelled generations of travellers, ideas planning a travel adventure, or to travel vicariously in space and time without leaving the sofa.

The Innocents Abroad – Mark Twain (1869)

Twain and a companion spend several months touring Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East on a cruise of the Mediterranean during the period of transition from Grand Tour to modern tourism. He writes sharp, insightful dispatches for an American newspaper, peppered with irreverent observations, satirical caricatures, and his trademark acerbic wit. However, it is to be noted that his views spill over into racism and Islamophobia at points. At a time when few travelled intercontinentally, his accounts were a lesson in culture and history, not just for his readers at home, but for those abroad encountering the brashness of Americans for the first time. The account is the source of the much-quoted observation below. Find it here.

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people needed it sorely on these accounts.”

Mark Twain

The Worst Journey in the World – Apsley Cherry-Garrard (1922)

The title of this book really is no exaggeration, and it’s no spoiler to let you know things do not go well. In 1912 Cherry-Garrard was the youngest member of the ill-fated Terra Nova Expedition led by Robert Falcon Scott. He was part of the team making the infamous Winter Journey to the penguin rookery at Cape Crozier with Edward Wilson and Birdie Bowers, and crossed the Great Ice Barrier and Bearmore Glacier with the polar party before being sent back at latitude 85° 20′ South. After leading the final unsuccessful rescue mission, Cherry-Garrard was part of the team uncovering the fate of Scott and the rest of the party, just 11 miles short of One-Ton Depot. Wracked with survivor’s guilt, he poured himself into this work, piecing together diary extracts from other team members, adding details of scientific endeavours and anecdotes of resilience and endurance in the frozen South. Get it here.

The Valley of the Assassins – Freya Stark (1934)

Stark is an intrepid explorer, trained as a geographer and cartographer, perhaps even working in the intelligence service, who writes engagingly of the people she encounters on her travels and challenged the perception of travelling safely as a solo woman. This book recounts several separate trips undertaken by Stark, into Luristan and its bordering regions, the mountainous area between Iraq and present-day Iran, as the fragmenting Ottoman Empire allowed access to areas previously off-limits to Western Europeans. It is hard to ignore that Stark is essentially a gravel robber, with obtaining grave goods and skulls the primary reason for her interest, which she justifies on the basis that it was better these were acquired on behalf of museums than fall into the hands of private collectors. Find it here.

Green Hills  of Africa – Ernest Hemingway (1935)

An account of a month Hemingway spent on safari in East Africa with his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, in 1933 when such an expedition was the height of glamour. He aspires to spend his time in the Serengeti shooting big game, fishing, drinking, and debating literature and philosophy with his fellow hunters. The book graphically describes the killing of animals, and though Hemingway acknowledges this will be distasteful to many and imagines the feeling of his prey close to death, he only shows contrition over a job poorly done. Alongside capturing the adrenaline rush of the hunt, and the notions of masculinity it conferred, he writes beautifully about the landscape and nature of the African bush. Get it here.

Journey Without Maps – Graham Greene (1936)

In 1935, successful novelist Greene undertook a trip to Liberia, a part of West Africa little known to Europeans, with his cousin Barbera as a travel companion. All the others invited to join him turned him down flat, but Greene was fascinated to explore the influences of colonialism in the region, and investigate the factors enabling Liberia to retain independence in the late-nineteenth century Scramble for Africa. Starting in Freetown, in the neighbouring British colonial possession of Sierra Leone, he treks inland with a team of porters to French Guinea, then through Liberia, a nation founded around a hundred years prior by formerly enslaved people and free-born Black people from the US and Caribbean. Greene’s narrative is compelling and insightful, exploring and exposing European myths about Africa, albeit through the white male gaze of the time. Get it here.

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon – Rebecca West (1942)

West travelled with her husband to the Balkans in the spring of 1937, their six-week journey through inter-war Yugoslavia was a return visit to document the history, political situation, and people of the region as the dark clouds of WWII gathered over Europe. The scale of the undertaking is epic, with more than 1200 pages of travel journal, historic insight, and cultural commentary, probing the fragmented and troubled history of the Balkan states and the uneasy relationships of the people of the region. They travel through what was then Croatia, Dalmatia, Herzegovina, Bosnia, Serbia, Macedonia, and Montenegro, recently on the fringes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the remains of the Ottoman Empire, now lying between Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. West’s writing is exceptional in its clarity and striking imagery, a masterpiece by turns witty and beautiful, on the edge of overwhelming. Find it here.

A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush – Eric Newby (1958)

Bored of his career in the London fashion trade, Newby undertakes an expedition to make a first ascent of Mir Samir (5,089m / 19,058′) in the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan. After just four days of training in Snowdonia, the woefully underprepared duo of Newby and Carless set off on their transcontinental expedition to reach Kabul, and into the mountains of Nuristan, where he bumps into renowned explorer Wilfred Thesiger. The book is an entertaining read, though for its frivolity is a comprehensive history of colonial expansion into South and Central Asia and the Himalayas, and the insight into the Nuristan region is a glimpse of somewhere much changed by events of subsequent years. Read it here.

Travels with Charley in Search of America – John Steinbeck (1961)

In 1960, Steinbeck loads up a pick-up truck camper and sets off on a road trip across the United States, travelling though forty states, accompanied by his French poodle, Charley. At the age of fifty-eight, feeling the softening of age about him and growing a little weary with the world, he aims to reconnect with his subject matter and meet the people that make up this new America and understand their stories. He writes with insight into the upheaval and change of the 1960’s, the loss of regional diversity across the country, and the changes in the environment. This is an account of a quiet journey rather than an adventure, slipping into travel-inspired fiction in places. Buy it here.

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning – Laurie Lee (1979)

Lee writes evocatively of his younger days, when at the age of 19, he leaves his small village in Gloucestershire and travels on foot to London, via Southampton, to find work as an itinerant labourer. He travels to Spain, supporting himself by means of his fiddle, tramping across the country on foot and becoming enchanted by the country, the people he meets, the music and customs he experiences. It is 1934, and life is hard in Spain, poverty is inescapable, and the signs of impending civil war are everywhere. This is in part a coming-of-age narrative as much as a travelogue, as the young Lee is filled out by his experiences, capturing the atmosphere, beauty, and tensions of Spain in lyrical prose. Find it here.

The Songlines – Bruce Chatwin (1987)

Central Australia was one of the few regions of the globe inhabited not by herders, pastoralists, or farmers, but by nomadic hunter-gathering people. As they moved across the continent they carved a network of invisible pathways in space and time, the Songlines of the title, which tie together cultural heritage, rites and rituals, and the human condition. This stands in vivid contrast to the prevailing culture of Australia, and Chatwin explores the conflicts between an indigenous population and a colonial force, impoverished people and wealthy, wanderers and the settled. I feel the insights of the book are enhanced by the unusual, shape-shifting form of the writing. It compiles travelogue and anthropology with Chatwin’s famed diaries, and a touch of fiction, making only a token attempt to merge these facets together, often running through deep, probing passages, interspersed with some that are little more than field sketches, before breaking down completely into scattered notes and journal extracts. Get it here.

Do you have any recommendations for classic travel books that I should read?
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Armchair Travel: 10 Books set on Pacific Islands

A selection of my favourite books which dive into the history and culture of the Pacific Islands.

Armchair Travel this season brings you my favourite books which explore the fascinating cultures of the islands and archipelagos of the Pacific Ocean. Included in the selection are histories and ethnographies, travelogues and tales of adventure which will deepen your knowledge and understanding of the region. I’d love to know if you’ve read any of these books, and if you have any recommendations for me, especially any fiction by Pasifika writers. Leave me a message in the comments below.

But first, read on to find a wee bit of tropical island inspiration for planning your next travel adventure, or set sail on a Pacific voyage of discovery without leaving the sofa.

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Armchair Travel: 10 books set in the desert

A selection of my favourite books with a desert setting.

This instalment of Armchair Travel brings you a selection of the best reads that capture the arresting beauty of arid landscapes and the unique challenges for those who live in or travel through them. Including riveting accounts of adventures, classic travelogues, and fictional works that bring deserts to life, there’s something for all interests.

Read on to find inspiration for planning your next travel adventure, or just explore the desert sands without leaving the comfort of home.

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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.

Armchair Travel: 10 Books for a Wild World

I’ve compiled a list of my favourite books set in wilder, remote locations or featuring wildlife as the main theme, including nature writing, biographies, travelogues, and fictional tales. 

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…

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Armchair Travel: 10 Books about the North

I’ve compiled a list of my favourite books set in the far north, including non-fiction, biography, ghost stories, and childhood favourites. 

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 into the icy north…

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Photo Journal: Qaqortoq Tundra Hike, Greenland

I’ve long had a fascination with the far north.  This short hike near Qaqortoq, in southern Greenland, is a classic introduction to a tundra environment yet not too remote and challenging given the location, and ideal for a solo hike.  A circular route of around 12km, there are plenty of diversions to take in the tops of surrounding hills for outstanding views to the iceberg-littered outer fjord and inland, through rocky spires to the distant ice sheet.

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