Books Every Traveller Should Read vol.1

Reading has always been a way to take yourself on a journey. For periods of otherwise boring days, you can be transported to magical lands, far off galaxies, or in the case of travel novels, all over this beautiful planet of ours. The best travel writers are the ones who can take you on the journey with them and ignite a fire to get back out there and visit somewhere new. Over the years I’ve read my fair share of books, especially travel-related, both the obscure and the must-reads. Scholars of travel writing will know these to be classics, however, they are classics for a reason and therefore I feel they are an essential place to start.

The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux

There is something so elegant and civilized about train travel, especially in this day and age. Stunning rail stations conveniently located in city centres, lacking the aeroplane style boarding and with no need to wait for baggage at the other end, rail travel is the epitome of ease. Paul Theroux’s travel diary published in 1975 tells the story of train travel from the UK to south-east Asia and back again. Some of the world’s most famous rail lines, some of which don’t even exist anymore, are described in a compelling story that evokes the imagination of readers and makes you want to get on a train headed anywhere. My copy of this book is often a fixture of my weekend pack, often read on a train journey headed somewhere new, with anticipation for the next adventure on my mind and the view of the countryside speeding by.

“Anything is possible on a train: a great meal, a binge, a visit from card players, an intrigue, a good night’s sleep, and strangers’ monologues framed like Russian short stories.” 

– Paul Theroux

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

The original American travel novel, first published in 1957, evokes a tale of self-discovery and carefree adventure across the US. Many travel quotes you find scrawled across hostels, maps and journals worldwide originated from this book, many of them prophecies to what today’s world of travelling has become. This story is not one of the conventional aeroplanes, hotels and restaurants, but one of the experiences of the true adventure of setting out on the road without even a destination in mind.

“Sal, we gotta go and never stop going ’till we get there.’
‘Where we going, man?’
‘I don’t know but we gotta go.”

– Jack Kerouac

What Kind of Life by Jon Thum

This one is less of a widely considered classic but is my favourite of all. Jon captures perfectly the feeling of restlessness that encaptures a traveller as they return from home, pouring every effort they have into getting to the next adventure. His transparent storytelling conveys an honesty and an openness that even the best travel writing occasionally will omit. The book carries you through the early travels of his youth and into middle age as he struggles to leave the nomadic life behind, an all too relatable and emotionally conflicting experience.

“What great fortune it is to have such times in your life to reflect and take stock! How important it is to make way for it! 

Yet how few people, when burdened with the day to day or hand to mouth, can say with all honesty that this is something they possess? How many of us will keep marching onwards with no real grasp of the where or the why?”

– Jon Thum

Neither Here nor There by Bill Bryson

In truth, nearly any one of Bryson’s books could be on this list. From A Walk in the Woods which details his hike along the Appalachian Trail in the eastern US to his all too honest Down Under which details his (mis)adventures and observations throughout Australia. Neither Here nor There is a travelogue story that interweaves his first experience travelling through Europe after college, and his attempt to recreate it twenty years later. All of Bryson’s stories are told with brilliant observations and witty humour with a sense of adventure in-between.

“Bulgaria, I reflected as I walked back to the hotel, isn’t a country; it’s a near-death experience.”

– Bill Bryson

Anyone of these reads will inspire you to set off on your next adventure and are only just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to travel writing that is essential reading. I will be making these a regular post as I come across more books, articles and stories that I think every traveller would enjoy. If you have a suggestion for writing you think is a must-read, comment and I will happily check it out!

– Ryan

60 Under 30 #6: England

On May 26th, 1959 the “Empress of England” arrived at the port of Liverpool after travelling across the Atlantic from Montreal. Aboard the ship was my twenty-three year old grandfather James Elliott and his mother Ivy Jordan, travelling to England to visit a family friend living in Folkestone on the south coast for a three and a half week holiday. It was during this trip at a small local pub called the Earl of Clarendon that he would meet his eventual wife and my grandmother, Lois.

Ship log for the Empress of England

The town my grandmother grew up in is a small part of the city of Folkestone known as Sandgate which lies on the south-eastern English coast roughly fifteen miles west of Dover. The year after my grandmother was born, World War II began, which initially resulted in Folkestone being the evacuation destination of thousands of children escaping London, and as the war progressed many of the evacuees and residents were pushed farther west to Wales in an effort to escape the German bombing runs.

My grandmother grew up during the war as a small child, and eventually when the war ended, grew up through the re-build of the town and moved to London. It would be another 20 years following the war before Folkestone would return to the resort town it once was. Examples of the 1950s and 60s era re-build can still be seen along the beach especially towards Sandgate as you walk west. It was during one of her many visits home from the city to see her mother that she would meet my grandfather.

Since I moved to England a year and a half ago, and with my grandmother’s heritage being the reason I was able to live in the UK (I was granted an Ancestry visa given that I have a grandparent born in the United Kingdom), I felt determined to explore the area she was from, where she met my grandfather and where so many important events that eventually led to my existence occurred.

Having decided to make a proper journey of it, my housemate and I set off on a hike along the white cliffs from Dover to Folkestone. After an hour train ride from King’s Cross and a coffee shop barista who looked at us like we were insane when we said what our plan was for the day, we set off.

About half an hour in, we realized that we should have asked the barista why she looked at us why were insane. It turns out that, although possible, when hiking from Dover to Folkestone there isn’t exactly what you would call a defined path. Our initial idea was to follow the coast, however given that the cliffs don’t always include a beach or flat surface at the bottom, that dream was quickly crushed amongst the waves smashing into the cliff faces below. After a brief attempt at following Plan B (also known as foolishly walking along the main road that turned into a major motorway), climbing over what turned out to be not one, but two barbed wire fences and desperately hoping the road we found ourselves on was not some sort of military rifle range, we found what resembled a hiking trail. We got to the top of the hill and was greeted with a spectacular view of the sea, Folkestone in the distance and the cliffs along the way. Screw you Plan A and B, we like Plan C better anyways.

Our final destination off in the distance

We trekked on, enjoying the view along the water, the railway below and waving to the sheep in the pasture as we passed. Ten kilometres in, we reached the outskirts of Folkestone and were feeling pretty good about ourselves. Thoughts of a cold pint, maybe a nice pie and mash carried us the final bit into the city centre where we sat for a quick drink while I looked up the location of the pub.

Now I have greatly underestimated several things before in my life. I foolishly did not listen to people who said just how hard an engineering degree actually would be. I moved to a new country without knowing anyone and somehow was still surprised at the effort required to start a new life. Neither of these come close to comparing to how badly I misjudged just how far it was exactly from the Dover train station to my grandmother’s house in Sandgate. I’ll just Google Maps from Dover to Folkestone I said. It’s England, that’ll be close enough I said. Ryan you are fucking idiot, I said.

I’m pretty sure that the look of horror on my face made my housemate think someone had died. I am normally great at planning things, I know how far I need to go to get from the airport to my hostel, where the main area of the city is and any day trips I’d like to do. Apparently I lose this ability when exploring my own country. I made sure to buy another round of drinks before breaking the news that sadly, we were about halfway there as the pub was located on the far west edge of Sandgate, completely on the opposite end of the city. Ryan, you fucking idiot indeed.

We’d come this far, so there was no turning back. Nicely enough it turns out that the entire waterfront in Folkestone was developed into a lovely garden park that transitioned eventually into the stone beaches of Sandgate I mentioned previously. Ellen DeGeneres’ “just keep swimming”, “just keep swimming” echoed in our heads as we marched on, through the greenery and across the pebbles. After what seemed an eternity later, we reached the corner, then the street and finally the pub. 10 minutes after they finished serving food. Ryan, you fucking idiot.

Hunger aside, it was sobering to be in the place that decades previously so much of my family history began. I owe my entire existence as the person I am to the chance of fate that two people met in that pub all those years ago. As I stood in awe of a seemingly ordinary pub, on an ordinary English street next to an ordinary house that my grandmother lived in as a child whilst German fighter planes flew overhead, even taking shots at her on some occasions, the other pub patrons couldn’t help but ask why the place seemed like a Holy Grail to me. After a brief chat, several of them mentioned that the owner of the pub at the time my grandmother lived there had passed away in 1990, only two months after my parents had visited the pub during their trip to England. After possibly the most glorious pint of our lives, and assuring that although we were likely not the brightest individuals that day we would not be walking all the way back to Dover, we made our way home.

Twenty-two kilometres, a March sunburn and blisters, cuts and bruises all over, somehow it all seemed worth it as we walked the distance back to the Folkestone train station and headed back to London. It’s a remarkable thing to be able to explore a foreign country and find your own history along the way.

As I arrived back at my flat in Brixton in South London, I couldn’t help but think that perhaps someday a distant relative of mine could walk down my very street, to find a seemingly ordinary flat amongst hundreds knowing that part of their history was written there and that they too, owed it all to a chance of fate that two people, decades ago, met in a tiny pub in Folkestone.