Why Walking is the Best Way to Explore

There truly is no better way of exploring places than on foot. Walking heightens the senses like no other form of transport can, giving a genuine understanding of the world around you. Much of what I’ve discovered on my travels I’ve learned through my feet, walking through cities, coasts and countryside.

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Taking a break by the river on a walk across Knoydart, with Luinne Bheinn in the background.

Walking feeds the senses

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Walking the city streets, rain or shine. Photo Credit: Rodrigo Soldon 2 via creative commons

Moving at a slower pace, in, rather than through, your surroundings, enhances your awareness of the small sensations of a place. The reverberation of sounds from near and far, a sudden bright splash of colour or a sharp waft of smell, even the gentle movement of air, translate into the types of experience all travellers relish. Stumbling upon a pavement café with excellent coffee and cake, or a street food vendor dishing up a local delicacy. Catching a glimpse of the flyer for live music at at a hip venue, some distinctive local architecture, or the intriguing piece of street art, laden with political meaning. A fresh breeze round a corner showing the direction to the harbour, with the promise of freshly-caught seafood and a chilled glass of wine as you watch fishermen go about their business.

Then the intangibles of the place that confirm its geography: salt-loaded air, the shriek of gulls, sparkling crystals in the grey granite walls of my home town, catching the low sun of a northern autumn day. The lapping of water, the leafy shadows across the path, blossom on the trees, weather changes, birdsong. Noticing everything as an ardent naturalist to pin down the season, the latitude and longitude, the reason for being in this place, here and now.

Walking makes connections

Cities, in the main, are designed to be walked. Possibilities open up beyond bus routes and tube stations, and walkers invent their own ways to go, building new links between A and B. With many people now spending a majority of time indoors, at home, in the office, in shops, hotels, bars, galleries, a number of disconnected interiors, walking inhabits the spaces in between. It gives a sense of moving through the whole world, not just a modest part.

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Photo Credit: -LucaM- Photography via creative commons

On foot, landmarks take on additional relevance, as travellers look for focal points in the landscape, building their individual maps and orientating themselves by experience. Coming and going, getting to know places, you seed them with a crop of stories and associations. Relating personal geography to maps provides bearing to locations in both space and time, revealing hidden histories through street names, districts, parks, trail marks, and creating new possibilities for exploration.

Walking is good for body and soul

Walking is the most accessible form of physical activity, requiring no special training or equipment. Almost everyone can do it, anywhere, and at any time. Those new to idea of exploring places on foot can start slowly, building up gradually as they gain confidence, whilst others more comfortable with distance and direction will know where and when they can push their limits. And like all physical exertion, especially that taking place outdoors, in the fresh air, the surge of chemicals within your physiology focuses the mind, and leaves the body relaxed.

High on the Hardangervidda in Norway, taking in the views.
High on the Hardangervidda in Norway, taking in the views.

Walking is free, and freeing

A mainstay item of the budget traveller’s itinerary, walking is magnificently free of charge. But more than this, the degree of self-reliance, the little bit of imagination, and the sense of adventure necessary to walk out and explore, gives you freedom. Freedom from schedules and timetables, freedom from the usual daily routine; the luxury of time and space. Freedom to think.

That great ideas and thoughts are formed whilst walking, especially whilst walking alone, is a concept many writers adhered to, from philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche to travel writer Bruce Chatwin to criminal mastermind Agatha Christie. New places offer up new thoughts, new alternatives. The frequent punctuation of a city, imparting countless grains of ideas, giving way to longer, more uninterrupted thoughts in open landscapes, stretching all the way to the horizon.

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Off on a winter walk through frozen fields.

And then myself, the buoyant rhythm of arms swinging in time with legs that only comes from long miles, is a meditation on living in the moment, of being aware of here and now. As a child, roaming freely in my surroundings, the opportunity to be able to get a little lost and then figure out the way back, was what developed my sense of adventure, my imagination, and my independence. I relish the opportunity to go out of my way, beyond the boundaries of what I know, then find my way back those few extra miles, on a new trail or by the needle of a compass; to lose myself for a time, though I know where I am. Then to round a corner or crest a ridge and return to the start, to the familiar, and see it as if I have never seen this place before.

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5 Seafaring Tales for a Sailing Holiday

Lord Nelson tied up alongside the quay in Hamilton, Bermuda.
Lord Nelson tied up alongside the quay in Hamilton, Bermuda.

I’m all at sea this month, quite literally, as I sail from Bermuda back to Britain on the STS Lord Nelson. On board we keep a watch system, with four teams working a rota to keep the ship sailing and carry out the tasks essential for everyone to live together in such close confines. Our down time, plus the lack of distractions, gives plenty of time to get lost in a good book. So, here are my recommendations for seafaring tales to take on a sailing trip. Continue reading

5 Classics of Travel Writing

readinginbedI’m much more a fan of reading non-fiction than fiction, and my favourite genre is travel writing. A well-crafted piece of travel writing, whether it takes the form of a journal, essay or more literary piece, transports you to a different place and time, revealing things previously unknown to the reader or capturing the beauty of the everyday that we often miss in our busy lives. Here are five of my favourites:

 

In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin

This is most certainly a travelogue, but not one in any ordinary sense. Rather, In Patagonia is a collection of snapshots and sketches from Chatwin’s wanderings, readings and imaginings of the region. Meetings with descendants of Welsh immigrants fill pages next to an account of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s retirement, which sit alongside thoughts on Darwin’s theory of natural selection, and the mythological giants imagined by Magellan. Dispensing with a narrative or plot, the reader is instead privileged to dip in a vast and curious pool of information. The stark Patagonian landscape serves as a cipher for the end of the road, for lands remote and imagined, and the array of characters Chatwin encounters (both historical and present), for those drawn to the ends of the earth for exploration, escape and enterprise.

Buy it here.

Monte FitzRoy in Patagonia. Photo from Wikipedia

Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger

Thesiger is often described as an anachronism, his education at Eton and then Oxford, and his dogged determination to discover what lay within the blank spaces on a map, harking back to the gentlemen explorers of the Victorian Era, obsessed with colonisation and Empire. However, he distinguishes himself by immersing in the culture of the people he encounters, travelling for the sake of the experience, and his lyrical and articulate writing. Arabian Sands is his account of five years spent crossing and recrossing Rub al Khali, the Empty Quarter of Arabia in the mid-1940s, accompanied by nomadic Bedu camel herders. Thesiger was also a talented photographer, and the images in the book capture a way of life on the brink of extreme change.

Buy it here.

Thesiger in Abu Dhabi in 1948. He donated over 5000 photographs of his travels in the Middle East to the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford. Photo from Pitt-Rivers Museum.

Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

Nobel laureate Steinbeck’s novels capture the voices of early 20th Century America, reflecting on his broad range of interests, from history to politics to ecology. In 1960, Steinbeck set out on a road trip in a fitted-out pick-up truck with Charley, his standard French poodle, to document the changes that had occurred across the States throughout that period, and connect with the identity of a new America. Much has been made of the truth of the account, with Steinbeck’s wife, Elaine, having been present for most of the journey yet largely absent from the book. Studies have since revealed that a number of events and encounters were fictionalised, but I feel Steinbeck deals with the issue, meditating on how personal experience shapes a person’s reality. The writing is as good as you would expect from such a renowned author, and there’s Charley, the travelling companion we all dream of.

Buy it here.

John Steinbeck and Charley on the road in 1950. Photo from The Guardian.

News from Tartary by Peter Fleming

In 1935, Fleming, then an editor for the Times, set off on an overland trip from Peking (now Beijing) in China to Kashmir, then in British India, by horse, camel and on foot. Tartary, an area corresponding to a vast swathe of Central Asia, had long been subject to influences from China, Russia and the British Empire in a period referred to as “The Great Game”, yet at the same time was a black hole in terms of most Westerner’s knowledge. With the Soviet Union supporting a communist uprising in Xinjiang, no news had been gathered from the region for several months before Fleming’s journey. The writing is crisp, with a wry humour, although readers should be aware some passages are very evocative of their era.

Buy it here.

Photograph of a Madrasa in Samarkand taken c. 1912. Photo from Wikipedia

Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Saint-Exupéry is best known as the author of The Little Prince (Le Petit Prince), a set text for many students of French, but he was also a pioneer of aviation, flying the airmail routes between Europe, North Africa and South America in the 1920s and 30s. In 1935, whilst attempting to beat the record for a flight from Paris to Saigon, he and his navigator crashed into the Sahara. Surviving the crash and lost in a sea of sand, they face a drawn-out death from dehydration. This experience is recounted in Wind, Sand and Stars, part memoir of early aviation and part meditation on the human condition. This is powerful, lyrical storytelling, rich with observations on love, beauty, adventure, life and death. In my opinion, this slim volume is as near perfect as a piece of travel writing can be.

Buy it here.

Saint-Ex and his aircraft. Photo from The Guardian.

 

Which classic travel books have inspired you?

 

Note: This post contains affiliate links. If you follow them to buy a book I recommend, I get a small payment from the company, at no charge to you whatsoever. It helps keep my book habit going.

Thor Heyerdahl, 100 Goats and a Viking Wedding: Why I Didn’t Visit Oslo

It’s long been an ambition of mine to see Kon Tiki, the balsa raft that carried Thor Heyerdahl across the Pacific from Peru to Polynesia, and captured my imagination as a child reading his account of the adventure. The original raft was wrecked on a reef in the remote Tuamotu archipelago, ending the 101-day voyage, but a replica is the centrepiece of a museum in Oslo dedicated to Heyerdahl and his expeditions. Nearby are other boats that I want to see, the Oseberg and Gokstad ships, in the Norwegian Viking Ship Museum, and Fram, the expedition ship that took Fritjof Nansen north, and Roald Amundsen south, on their quests for the poles. (I like boats, ok?)

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Oslo Waterfront from the Opera House. Photo Credit: ïCliff on creative commons

My plan was pretty straightforward. Sign off from Draken Harald Hårfagre at the end of the summer’s expedition, and catch the coastal ferry from Draken’s home port of Haugesund to Bergen. Train to Oslo, a seven and a half-hour journey considered to be the most scenic route in the world. Arrive in the evening, check into the hostel, stretch my legs walking in Viglandsparken Sculpture Park. Spend the following day at the museums, explore more of the city, then fly home the next morning. Sounds great, doesn’t it? I love it when a plan comes together.

And yet I was here. Midnight was long gone, and my sandals were attempting to follow. Cold mud oozed up between my toes as I stood in a dark field. Below on the hillside I could pick out the outline of a barn, lit by candle lanterns and flaming torches.
Continue reading

The Adventure Continues…

What a difference a week can make. Two weeks ago, Draken Harald Hårfargre was tied up to the quayside in Lerwick, sail and sheets piled on the foredeck, the yard lashed along the starboard rail, after we lost our mast crossing the North Sea. The crew were camped out in tents on the edge of the high school playing field, just opposite the Coastguard station. And after initial relief at our safe arrival subsided, it was replaced with an empty uncertainty, as we waited to find out what would happen to the expedition. Continue reading

Worse Things Happen at Sea

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Sunset over Shetland, as Draken Harald Hårfargre approaches Burray Sound.

Sometimes things just don’t go they way they’re planned. In my imagination, I see Draken bearing down toward Bressay lighthouse, flying before the wind, red sail glowing in the golden sunset, arriving in Shetland like the Viking ships of old. We make a tack to round South Ness and enter Bressay Sound. Approaching Lerwick we start to lower the sail and kai in the rå, drawing one end of the massive yard holding the top of the sail under the shrouds. As we come alongside the quay, we pack up the sail and coil sheets and lines, making ready to put up the foredeck tent. We step ashore in the simmer dim, the twilight of a northern summer.

At least we got the sunset. Continue reading

Nomads and Vikings

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The winners of the World Nomads Travel Scholarship competition were announced the other day; with three writers selected to take part in a writers workshop in Berlin, before each setting out on a 10-day roadtrip through part of Europe in August. Winning would have been an amazing opportunity, but I’m not too disappointed as I was one of 30 writers shortlisted from many that entered, and I’m rather proud of that achievement.

I’m looking forward to reading the other entries on the shortlist, especially the winners; Rachel Ecklund, Amanda Richardson and Jarryd Salem and keeping up with the winners journals over their trips. Hopefully I’ll glean some writing tips from them as they travel.

And the reason I’m not too disappointed about missing out on a European roadtrip is that I’ve made some plans for the summer too. I’m going to rejoin the crew of Draken Harald Hårfarge at the end of June, for a sailing voyage that will take us from Norway, across the North Sea to Shetland and Orkney, through the Hebrides and down the west coast of Scotland, to Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man and finally into Liverpool, before returning.  So here’s to blue seas, fair winds and beautiful sunsets.

Any seasickness remedies you can recommend are much appreciated!

Night Sailing in the Norwegian Sea

Last month I entered a competition hosted by WorldNomads.com, aiming to win a travel writing workshop with an expert. The prize includes a 10-day road trip through Europe, and a commission to write a journal of the trip and follow-up articles. Results are announced later today, so keep your fingers crossed for me.

This is my entry:

Continue reading