Travel books Archive

Lighting out for the territory with Jonathan Raban

I compiled a page for Telegraph Travel last weekend of literary escapes as a relief during lockdown. Some of the contents are now online (though you’ll have to register to read them), including an extract from Jonathan Raban’s Old Glory, which carried me off to the Mississippi once when I was laid low with flu.

Leigh Fermor and company on ‘The Art of Travel’

The fruity tones of Patrick Leigh Fermor, who died four years short of his century in 2011, can be heard in a 1992 interview that’s now available again through BBC Sounds. He talks to Annette Kobak, recalling his walk in the 1930s with his “rooksack” from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople: “I’d got a pound a week, nothing else, and I thought I could just manage on that, you know, living very humbly, sleep out in summer, and doss down in  barns and that sort of thing, farmhouses in winter, and keep body and soul together…”

  Also featured in the “Art of Travel” slot are Caryl Philips, Colin Thubron, Tim Severin and Sir Laurens van der Post.

Running away from it all

I’m just back from a run in Nonsuch Park, my nearest expanse of greenery, where I was free of phones, screens and the watch and could run with a head full of nothing but Masefield, Larkin, Oliver and Frost. (Greenery, incidentally, is the title of the latest book from Tim Dee, which I mentioned a while back. I’ve not had time yet to read it myself, but it’s generating rave reviews — see The Guardian, The Observer and the Caught by the River website.)

  Anyway, all the car parks on the edge of Nonsuch had been closed, presumably to deter people arriving in groups and getting close to one another as they got in and out of cars. More elbow room for us locals, for runners and cyclists, but I do feel sorry for those people who like the space but now won’t be able to enjoy it because they’re not capable of getting there under their own steam.

  I’m guessing the last time anything with an engine presented a threat in Nonsuch Park was during the Second World War, when Brian Jackman, that great observer of the African bush, was growing up nearby and there were Spitfires and Messerschmitts overhead. The Blitz was at his height, and at the age of eight he was evacuated to a farm near Bude in Cornwall.

  In his book Wild About Britain, a collection of his writing about landscapes and wildlife, he recalls the park of his boyhood:

  Nonsuch… had once been the site of a great palace built by Henry VIII and subsequently demolished to pay off the gambling debts of the Countess of Castlemaine, into whose hands it had passed the following century. But of course we knew nothing of this. Instead, enclosed by fleets of blowsy elms, its unshorn meadows were our prairies, its hawthorn hedges our African savannas. In one field a landmine had fallen, blowing a deep crater in the clay that quickly filled with rain; and nature, always swift to exploit a niche, soon transformed it into a wildlife haven…

  Nonsuch was the perfect adventure playground, where I swung like Tarzan through the trees, made Robin Hood bows from young ash staves and built Apache dens among the cow parsley…

  If you’d like to keep company with Jackman, you can find a couple of contributions from him on Deskbound Traveller: on the peregrines of Cornwall and on the last great wilderness of Southern Africa, Namibia.

  There’s a piece here too by Tim Dee, on the Masai Mara, in Kenya. Read that, and then buy his new book (from an independent bookshop if you can).


* Update, March 29, 2020: When I posted the paragraphs above, I was trying to remember something Brian Jackman had told me once about having seen a dogfight close to home, but I didn’t have a note of it and didn’t want to get it wrong. He has since emailed to say:

  “It took place over Briarwood Road [where he lived]. The Messerschmitt pilot was hanging over the cockpit, having tried and failed to bale out. After it crashed, the Spitfire came past in a victory roll and we all ran out into the street to cheer.

  “Another time, my mate and I were walking home down the London Road (near Nonsuch Park gates on the other side) and we heard — and then saw — a buzz-bomb coming straight towards us. We dived for cover into someone’s front garden and lay down until we heard it explode in the adjoining fields. Then we rubbed the dirt off our knees and went home for tea. No counselling in those days.”

*I started reading Greenery (Jonathan Cape) last night, and it’s as good as I expected; you can find an extract on the Caught by the River site.

Competition winners

Happy reading to my four competition winners, who will each be receiving a copy of Jens Mühling’s Black Earth: A Journey through Ukraine. They are: Sara Evans, EmmaLucy Cole, Rob Jones and Chas Gilbert. Thanks again to Haus Publishing for putting up the prize.

  The London-based Haus, whose imprints include Armchair Traveller, will continue sending out books for as long as it can. Over the coming weeks, all its titles will be discounted by 30 per cent, and 10 per cent of whatever you pay will be donated to NHS charities. Postage and packaging is free for UK residents. Call the office (020 3637 9729) between 1pm and 4pm, Monday to Friday, to order, and your book will be sent through the post.

Wainwright Prize submissions open

Writers and publishers were invited this morning to submit entries for the Wainwright Prize, for books on nature, the outdoors and UK travel. 

  The prize has been extended this year to include a second category to cover writing about global conservation and climate change. “The books in this category will reflect efforts in or studies relating to conservation or climate change as it affects nature and the outdoors. They should be narrative-driven and could be global in scope.”

To Cornwall, via Radio 4

Had to cancel a trip to Cornwall? Travel to Newlyn with Dark, Salt, Clear by Lamorna Ash (Bloomsbury), which is Book of the Week on Radio 4 from 9.45 this morning.

Paper planes

I decided last year that I would try to avoid flying as a travel writer. I didn’t want to be encouraging readers — directly or indirectly — to burn more oil at a time when we should all be burning less. In acknowledgement of the cumulative depth of my carbon footprint, I promised not to fly at all in 2020, and signed up to Flight Free UK. When I did that, I didn’t expect that I would soon find myself being discouraged from taking trains and ships as well.

  I’m still travelling, though. I’ve recently been to Istanbul and the Balkans, to the Ukraine and St Petersburg, and even as far as the Black Hills of South Dakota. All thanks to what DH Lawrence, in Mornings in Mexico, summed up as “one little individual, looking at a bit of sky and trees, then… making little marks on paper”. 

  The body hasn’t been crossing oceans, but the mind has been roaming where it will, and a few hundred pages between covers have taken it an awfully long way. If you’ve had to abandon your travel plans or, worse still, lock yourself away, the books below will help you break free. And if you’re going to buy one, please do it through an independent bookshop and not an online giant that doesn’t really need the trade.

Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot by Mark Vanhoenacker (Vintage)

“I’m grounded,” you’re thinking. “I don’t want to read aviation’s equivalent of a petrolhead.” And you won’t. In his hymn to “the business of guiding vessels between blue-parted cities”, Vanhoenacker touches on Joni Mitchell as well as Mach 1, on T S Eliot as well as tailwinds. In the pages of his book, if not necessarily on your next outing in the economy cabin of his 747, you will find yourself agreeing that “The ordinary things we thought we knew… become more beautiful.”

Old Glory: An American Voyage by Jonathan Raban (Eland)

Wishing you were out on the water? Jonathan Raban is better equipped than any living writer I know to take you there. Reading Huckleberry Finn at seven, he dreamt the brook at the end of his Norfolk street into the wide waterway of the Mississippi. Thirty years later, he followed the river for most of its length in a 16ft aluminium skiff, all the while illuminating the America and Americans of the late 1970s.

Lands of Lost Borders by Kate Harris (HarperCollins)

Harris, an academic high-flyer from Canada, had ambitions to be an astronaut, then decided there was exploring enough to be done on planet Earth. Cycling the Silk Road with a childhood friend, she pedals to places where authorities don’t want her to go, including Tibet. On the page, she flits easily across supposed boundaries between travelogue and memoir, science and poetry. The result is a marvellous debut by a wanderer and wonderer, an author with boundless curiosity and a zest for life that enthuses every page.

The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane (Penguin)

Macfarlane’s Underland was recently named Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year, but tunnels may not be what you’re looking for right now. Join him, instead, in some leg-stretching, mind-expanding hikes on The Old Ways. Inspired by the poet Edward Thomas, “who thought on paths and of them, but also with them”, Macfarlane walks ancient routes everywhere from the chalk downs of England to the bird islands of north-west Scotland; from the disputed territories of Palestine to the sacred landscapes of Spain and the Himalayas. 

Venice by Jan Morris (Faber & Faber)

Jan Morris avoids the label travel writer, on the basis that she doesn’t go on journeys, but she is one of the greatest conjurors of place. She published this portrait of the city in 1960, and though it has gone into numerous editions it has never really been revised. But then it’s not a guidebook; it’s a love letter. Contemporary Venice, she says, is “a grand (and heavily over-booked) exhibition”; let her show you the city as it used to be. 

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee (Penguin) 

Hankering for the heat that comes earlier in Spain? Then join Lee on his journey there in the 1930s. He wasn’t a trust-fund tourist; he paid his way with busking and labouring, sailing for Vigo with a knapsack, a fiddle and enough Spanish to ask for water: “I didn’t bother to wonder what would happen then, for already I saw myself there, brown as an apostle, walking the white dust roads through the orange groves.”

Skybound by Rebecca Loncraine (Picador)

Confinement to avoid Coronavirus is scary enough, but what if you were given a diagnosis of cancer? That’s what Rebecca Loncraine faced in 2009 at the age of 35. She took up gliding, and her “private love letters to the wind” were the beginnings of Skybound, which appeared in 2016, a couple of years after her death. It’s an extraordinary book, one in which the writer, for whom the world had closed down, feels it reopen, and carries the reader up on the thermals with her.

How to Travel Without Seeing by Andrés Neuman (Restless Books)

If you’ve had to put a gap-year trip on hold, here’s a chance to take in Latin America in a rush. A tour Neuman was sent on after winning a literary prize had him pinballing from place to place — 19 countries in all — so the writing, he decided, should reflect that; the journal should take on the form of the journey. The result is not so much a travel book as a travelling one: instant, impressionistic, written from a need “to trap small realities on the go and interpret them in real time”.

Chesapeake Requiem by Earl Swift (Dey Street)

A health emergency has, for the moment, drawn attention away from the climate emergency. One spot where the latter is evident (at least to outsiders) is Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay, where a 240-year-old crabbing community is going under the water. Swift lived among the islanders, and his book, at once affectionate and inquiring, is a superb account of a singular place and its people.

The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard (Vintage Classics)

Sometimes, just sometimes, you need a travel book that will make you count your blessings to be stuck at home. This one should do it. The journey was Scott’s last expedition to the Antarctic — beaten to the Pole by Amundsen’s — and Cherry-Garrard was one of its members. His account, of freezing, soaking, blubber-eating hardship, is written with unfailing good humour. “Polar exploration,” he declares at the outset, “is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised.”

Win a copy of ‘Black Earth: A Journey through Ukraine’

The cover story of last Saturday’s Guardian Weekend was an interview with Volodymyr Zelenskiy. He used to be a comedian, and played a man who becomes president of Ukraine; now he is president of Ukraine. 

  As Shaun Walker and Andrew Roth put it in their Guardian article, Zelenskiy is now “running a country of 42 million people that in the past few years has seen a revolution, a land-grab [of Crimea] by Vladimir Putin and an ongoing war in its eastern regions”. It’s a country that figured, too, in the impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump.

  I’ve recently become more familiar with the place behind the headlines, having read Black Earth, a pacey and populous book by the German journalist Jens Mühling. It was published in English (under Haus Publishing’s imprint The Armchair Traveller) last August, but hasn’t had the attention it deserves. Like his last book, it was prompted by a feeling that he didn’t really know a place where he had long been working as a reporter, and by an urge to make good the deficiency. 

  A Journey into Russia, which was short-listed for the Stanford Dolman prize in 2015, was an attempt to get at “the soul of Russia” — a topic on which Mühling was regularly asked to speak at editorial meetings but which he felt ill-equipped to address. It was a book that barely mentioned the name “Putin” or the word “oligarch”, and which conveyed powerfully the grip that religion still has on the country. 

  Similarly, Black Earth (translated as the last book was by Eugene H Hayworth) was sparked by Mühling’s realisation that in his journalistic work he had really only skimmed the surface of Ukraine. So he set out to get the measure of it, travelling through it from the Polish border to the Russian one. Along the way, he talked to nationalists and old communists, Crimean Tatars and Cossacks, smugglers, archaeologists and soldiers, gathering stories “of life and of grief and of love”.  You can read an extract here on Deskbound Traveller

  Thanks to Haus Publishing, I have four copies of Black Earth to give away. To be in with a chance of winning one, just retweet my mention of the book from either @kerraway or @deskboundtravel, or like and share my post about the book on

Terms and conditions
Entrants must retweet a mention of the prize on Twitter from @deskboundtravel or @kerraway, or like and share the post about the prize on the Deskbound Traveller Facebook page, by midnight on March 17. Each winner, who must be resident in the United Kingdom or Ireland, will receive one copy of the book. Winners will be selected at random and notified by March 23. Unsuccessful entrants will not be contacted. For more about Haus Publishing’s travel books, see the company’s website.

Jan Morris’s favourite travel book

Jan Morris has spent her life travelling and writing, but has never considered herself a travel writer, on the basis that her books have tended to be about places (Venice, Trieste, Hong Kong, Sydney) rather than journeys. In an interview for the review section of The Observer at the weekend, she told Tim Adams that her Pax Britannica trilogy on the rise and fall of the British Empire was “the centrepiece of my life, really, I hesitate to say intellectually, but certainly emotionally”.

  Morris, who is 93 and doesn’t travel far these days from her home in Llanystumdwy, in Wales, is about to publish a second diary, Thinking Again. Its tone, says Adams, “is of someone who has seen the whole world and decided on this place as an ending”.

  A few years ago, I invited Morris to contribute to a series, “Companion Volume”, in which writers nominated a favourite travel book. This is what she wrote:

“They order this matter better in France,” announces the narrator in the very first line of Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (1763).

It is one of the best-known opening lines in literature, and I love it because it cocks a merry snook at what is popularly called travel writing. The narrator has not yet set foot in France, he never does get to Italy and the whole inimitable work might better be described as un-travel writing.

To my mind travel is incidental to most of the best travel books. It is merely a peg on which authors can hang reflections, humours, regrets and irritations, set for effect against the passing scene. Such books are not intended to tell readers what they will themselves find if they chance to go that way. They record the state of an author’s own sensibility, on a particular journey, at a particular time.

Sterne does indeed travel through France, but his France is purely personal to himself. He describes no great sights, he offers no descriptive passages, and he really might just as well be travelling through Ruritania — where they may also order matters better, for all I know.

Macfarlane wins Stanford Dolman prize for ‘Underland’

The £2,500 prize for Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year went tonight to Robert Macfarlane (right) for Underland (Hamish Hamilton), a book in which he travels into the world beneath our feet and what we’ve made of it — physically, with mines and tombs, and metaphorically, with myths and legends. It takes him from Bronze Age funeral chambers in Somerset, via the catacombs of Paris, to a nuclear bunker in Finland.

  The prize, which the bookseller Stanfords runs in association with the Authors’ Club, is now part of a Stanfords scheme with awards in 10 categories, ranging from memoir to children’s travel.

  An award for an outstanding contribution to travel writing went to Paul Theroux, who has long written non-fiction as well as novels and whose latest travel book (and 51st book), On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Road Trip, was short-listed for the Stanford Dolman.

  An award for new travel writers, run in association with Bradt Travel Guides, went to Kirstin Zhang — who  was raised in Cyprus and Papua New Guinea and currently lives in Edinburgh — for an 800-word article about a trip to Uganda. She works for the arts body Creative Scotland and has written short fiction for magazines and for Radio 4. 

  For the full list of awards and the short-listed books, see the Stanfords website.