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Best of the new travel books

My choice of the best of new writing about places will be in print in the travel section of tomorrow’s Daily Telegraph and is already online. Here on Deskbound Traveller, you can read a longer version of my review of Andrés Neuman’s How to Travel Without Seeing: Dispatches from the New Latin America.

A really hard Brexit — 8,000 years ago

cranebookThe story of Britain is one usually seen through the lens of historians — through the reigns of kings and queens; through victories, defeats and cultural currents. Last night it was the turn of a geographer: Nicholas Crane, president of the Royal Geographical Society and presenter of television series including Coast and Map Man, was launching his new book, The Making of the British Landscape: From the Ice Age to the Present (Weidenfeld & Nicolson), in which he tells the story of how the island has evolved, and how Britons have changed it and related to it through the ages.

It’s a book he’s been thinking about for 40 years, and working on for eight years, and which covers 12,000 years of continuous human occupation. On Monday night, he said, he had managed to “squidge” those 12,000 years into a 45-minute talk at the RGS (see the video preview below). Here — in Daunt Books in Marylebone, London — he was going to be a bit brisker: in the space of four minutes, he promised, he would carry us from the end of the Ice Age to the opening of the Shard. Well, it was four-and-a-bit, but so he did, taking in, along the way, huge shifts in temperature that had Britons thriving and freezing, a climatic spasm of 9,700 BC, when “the thermal window let in 64 million people” and the biggest landscape event of all, a tsunami 8,000 years ago that severed Britain from the Continent — “a really hard Brexit”.

The Making of the British Landscape has already been reviewed in The Guardian by Andrea Wulf (author of a prize-winning biography of Alexander von Humboldt), who described it as ambitious and magnificent.

Travel writing at October’s festivals

Writing about travel and places features strongly in this month’s literary festivals.

Speakers at the Sherborne Literary Festival (Oct 12-16; will include Tim Moore, author of The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold (see previous post), and Tom Fort, author of Channel Shore: From the White Cliffs to Land’s End.

Speakers at the Wells Festival of Literature (Oct 14-22; will include Arkady Ostrovsky, a Russian-born British journalist and author of The Invention of Russia – The Journey From Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War; Gaia Vince, author of Adventures in the Anthropocene, which investigates man’s impact on the planet; Alexandra Harris, author of Weatherland: Writers & Artists Under English Skies, which was shortlisted this year for the RSL Ondaatje Prize for a book “evoking the spirit of a place”; Ben Rawlence, author of City of Thorns – Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp; and Colin Thubron, who is better known as a travel writer but will be introducing his new novel, Night of Fire.

Speakers at Dundee Literary Festival (Oct 19-23; will include Donald S Murray, author of Herring Tales: How the Silver Darlings Shaped Human Taste and History; Amy Liptrot, author of The Outrun, a memoir of alcoholism and recovery on Orkney that won this year’s Wainwright Prize; and Malachy Tallack, author of the acclaimed 60 Degrees North, whose latest book, illustrated by Katie Scott, is The Un-Discovered Islands: An Archipelago of Myths and Mysteries, Phantoms and Fakes.

Speakers at the Wantage (Not Just Betjeman) Festival (Oct 22-30; will include Patrick Dillon, a cultural ecologist, who has collaborated with his daughter Anna, an artist, and Eric Jones, an environmental historian, on Middle Ridgeway, a book about the prehistoric long-distance path; the broadcaster and writer Nicholas Crane, whose latest book is The Making of the British Landscape; and the explorer Jason Lewis, the first person to circumnavigate the Earth using human power, a feat recounted in his trilogy The Expedition.

The trick cyclist of travel writing

Tim Moore is one of those writers whose travels I enjoy without being at all tempted to follow in his tyre tracks. For his last book, he retraced the 1914 Giro d’Italia on a 99-year-old bike with wooden wheels. For his latest, The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold (Vintage), he’s followed the line that was the Iron Curtain, 10,000 kilometres (6,250 miles) from the Arctic Circle to Bulgaria, on a vintage East German shopping bike. He set off when Finland was still wearing its winter coat — a mad idea, but it makes for hilarious reading. There was an extract at the weekend in the Telegraph Magazine.

Accent on the journey

A tweet yesterday from the writer Melissa Harrison pointed me to a Radio 4 programme I missed when it was first aired last month. It’s A Journey Through English, a celebration of the diversity of dialects and accents you hear as you take the longest continuous train journey in Britain: more than 600 miles from Aberdeen to Penzance. I particularly liked the contribution from a Scot who said that she had spoken English since she was a child, when “you had one tongue for the hoose, another tongue for the street, and another tongue for the school or the kirk”. It was a programme that, in more ways than one, made Britain seem a bigger place. The guard, having reeled off the 43 stations the train would call at in between, sounded as though he needed a lie-down before the journey had properly begun.

Jan Morris on ‘the travelling craft’

Jan Morris turned 90 yesterday, and to mark her birthday The Guardian had an article from her agent of 20 years, Derek Johns. That sent me back to a book of her own, Pleasures of a Tangled Life, in which she set out some rules on “The Travelling Craft”, including this one:

“Some practitioners maintain that the essential purpose of moving around the world is to put yourself in other people’s shoes, to experience life… as Frenchmen or Israelis or Japanese experience it, eating what they eat, buying what they buy, even trying to think as they do. Not me. Nothing is going to make a shogun of me, least of all ten days at a Yokohama motel, and scholars who have spent entire careers studying the Basque mind still can’t make head nor tail of it. Far better in my opinion to regard the great world as a kind of show, a tragicomedy, kindly put on for my fascination. Nobody is offended by this approach. Most people love to be looked at.”

Faber is due to publish Derek Johns’s Ariel: A Literary Life of Jan Morris, on Thursday. Michael Palin Meets Jan Morris is due to be screened on BBC2 on Saturday (October 8).

5×15 on travel and exploration

5×15, which I’ve mentioned here recently, has a session in London next month focusing on travel and exploration. The speakers are Andrew Solomon, author of Far & Away, reviewed yesterday in The Observer; the Turkish novelist Elif Shafak, whose The Architect’s Apprentice, set in 16th-century Istanbul, was shortlisted for last year’s RSL Ondaatje Prize for a book evoking the spirit of a place; Robert Twigger, author most recently of what he calls a “polymathic ‘biography’ of Everest”, which follows his torrent of river tales in Red Nile; Madeleine Bunting, whose Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey, is due out from Granta on October 13; and Sarah Marquis, a Swiss adventurer whose feats have included a three-year walk from Siberia to Australia, recounted in Wild by Nature. The session is on October 12 at the Emmanuel Centre, SW1.

Wigtown hosts the wanderers

If work weren’t taking me elsewhere, I know where I’d be going at the end of next week: to the Wigtown Book Festival in Scotland (Sept 23-Oct 2). Travel writing features prominently on a tremendous programme.

Speakers will include Alastair McIntosh, author of Poacher’s Pilgrimage, about a journey the length of Lewis and Harris; Cal Flyn, author of Thicker Than Water, the story of her ancestor, Angus McMillan, who was both a frontiersman in Australia and a killer of indigenous people; Jason Lewis, the first person to navigate the world by human power, who will be talking about To the Brink, the final part of his Expedition trilogy; Charlotte McDonald-Gibson, who in Cast Away tells the individual stories of refugees trying to start a new life in Europe; Amy Liptrot, author of The Outrun, a memoir of Orkney that won this year’s Wainwright Prize; Rory Stewart, who in The Marches will tell about walking the land between Scotland and England with his father; Madeleine Bunting, whose Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey, is due out next month; Edward Wilson-Lee, author of Shakespeare in Swahililand; Mark Beaumont (The Man Who Cycled the World), talking about his latest book, Africa Solo, recounting his 41 days in the saddle from Cairo to Cape Town; and Malachy Tallack, who is following his critically acclaimed 60 Degrees North with The Un-Discovered Islands, about 24 islands once believed to be real but no longer on the map.

On Heaney’s home ground

The Seamus Heaney HomePlace, a new centre in Bellaghy, County Derry, that will celebrate the life and work of the poet, is due to open at the end of this month. Helen Mark went to the village for Radio 4’s Open Country programme to hear how plans are proceeding. The priest, Father Dolan, says that Heaney has made the local landscape “sacred and immortal”; the teacher who first took Heaney’s work into the classroom says the poet has helped children value what they took for granted. Even those with little interest in poetry know that the legacy of “Famous Seamus” could be good for business.

Not too good, I hope. I’m reminded of a fine piece Fionnuala McHugh wrote a couple of years ago for Telegraph Travel, in which she observed: “Heaney tours are currently at that happy stage where people are still tickled by visitors. May that never change.”

Conjuring Thomas Machell, forgotten explorer

I’ve mentioned before Deeper than Indigo, Jenny Balfour Paul’s account of travels inspired by a Victorian adventurer, Thomas Machell, with whom she shares a love of India, a career in indigo (she is one of the world’s leading experts) and a passion for journal writing. The author will be speaking on Tuesday in Tiverton, Devon, as part of a series of events organised by the South-West regional committee of the Royal Geographical Society.