I might often fail but I aim to be a travel writer that tells stories about places. Pretty much each of my travel articles has a narrative thread through it and I work hard to weave travel information that is handy for the campervan and motorhome community through this story, along with history and fascinating facts so that the article is both inspiring and useful.
I find various ways of telling a story. In some articles I have followed an earlier traveller, such as Bonnie Prince Charlie from Scotland to Derby [published May 2019] or Celia Fiennes on the Welsh border [published February 2017]. In other articles I have focused on local food. I took this approach for a trip to Lancashire [February 2015] and found the atmospheric cave-like wine shop in Clitheroe. More recently I visited the Conwy Honey Fair [August 2019] where everything related to honey can be purchased. In Spain I tried to get under the skin of the Spanish Civil War in my December 2019 article. Sometimes it is other writers that have inspired my trip; Alan Garner took me to Cheshire [November 2018], in Somerset and Devon [August 2018] I followed various authors and my latest MMM article to East Sussex explores the world of some of my favourite children’s authors. At times I chase my own memories; my trip around familiar Staffordshire towns and villages was one such trip [July 2016].
I try to write something that readers will enjoy, that will entertain them and that they will want to read until the end because they are following my story. On the way I will try to bring the place alive, maybe the smell of wood smoke in a Tuscan village, the taste of creamy ice-cream in Lancashire or the feel of the Orcadian wind in their hair. Readers can join me in the thrill of trying different Belgian beers in a small friendly bar, my frustrations with the weather or getting lost and my enthusiasm when I find something truly unique.
Good travel writing isn’t about statistics and lists, the ten best things to do, the cheapest restaurant for authentic food or the most comfortable hotels. While these things are useful once you are into the detail of planning your trip, for real inspiration I like to think readers want a story that paints a picture of a place. Initially, fellow travellers want to know if that place has something to interest them. They want to know if it is their kind of town or country and whether they might want to follow in my footsteps, making a trip that will become their own story.
My favourite travel writer is Dervla Murphy an inspirational author who writes intimate tales from unlikely places that bring both the place and the people alive. Although inspirational, it is her warmth and interest in people that I want to follow her example of. Every one of her books makes me feel as if I have walked or cycled alongside her on her journey. In an interview in the Irish Examiner she modestly said,
“If I am to be remembered, I’d like to be remembered as someone who was interested in the ordinary people of whatever country I was in.”
I understand I will never achieve the brilliance of Dervla Murphy and that is fine, we all have to have people we look up to. So long as I find stories hidden in the places I go to I will keep sharing them with readers.
To read any of my published travel articles head for the relevant page on the blog from the menu at the top.
‘Travel and change of place impart new vigour to the mind,’ is an often cited and apparently thoughtful quote from Seneca, a wealthy and powerful Roman Stoic philosopher and writer. Many travellers use this quote as, although it was written 2,000 years ago, these words still holds some truth today. Many of us feel that taking a break from the everyday comfortable routine can be refreshing, give me a chance to see things with new eyes and look beyond the familiar daily grind, encountering vivid ideas that can lead me to innovation and change. Seeing new sights can be mind expanding and renews our get-up-and-go and connects us to Seneca the philosopher.
Wanting to understand what Seneca was saying, I searched for the specific reference or context of this quote but hit a brick wall, only finding others who state this is wrongly attributed to Seneca but no information about who the quote is from. Also the more I read about Stoicism the less sense these words meant in relation to its teachings.
Stoicism teaches the four cardinal virtues for a good life, wisdom, temperance, justice and courage. As a Stoic, Seneca argued that passionate anger or grief should be moderated and he would approve of the classic stiff upper lip. Stoicism teaches that happiness is found in acceptance and by not allowing our desire for pleasure and our fear of pain to control actions. Seneca thought it was important for everyone to consider their own mortality and face up to dying, not to encourage a pessimistic attitude but to reinforce how lucky we are to be alive and live for today. Studying Stoicism can lead to reflection and philanthropy and can help us understand our place in the world and encourage us to treat others fairly and justly. As a Stoic Seneca recognised his own short-comings compared to his own role models and was always willing to learn.
Stoicism in many ways fits well with today’s minimalist movement. A Stoic admires frugality and sees no shame in being seen wearing old clothes, driving a battered car or living in a run down house … image is nothing and boasting about a luxury holiday or posting glamorous photographs on social media would be a far cry from Stoicism.
There seems some tension between this often quoted phrase of Seneca’s and the principles of Stoicism. Some argue that Seneca would support the sentiment of the quote while considering that it is the intent of the travel and the disposition of the traveller that are important. He wrote, ‘Where you arrive does not matter so much as what sort of person you are when you arrive here.’
Travel to find peace of mind is not promoted by Stoicism as this inner harmony needs to be achieved from within and moving to a new place won’t make you happy, ‘You must change the mind, not the venue,’ Seneca wrote. Stoicism argues that travel in itself cannot lead to self-improvement. Yet, travel that combines frugality with learning could fit into the Stoic’s way of life.
Taking a break from work can give your mind a chance to wander into new areas and that is when some bright spark of an idea can pop in but I find that even getting out for a walk can give the same result, never mind a full-blown holiday. As Tim Harford argues in this FT article, you don’t need a long holiday to give your brain chance to relax and re-boot. A weekend away works just as well and the benefits of a longer break wear off just as quickly as a short one. Such news is all a bit distressing for someone who loves long holidays and I personally find that the benefits of a long holiday lie deeper and of course, all this is different when you are not returning to work. It is true that when we were working folk we would get away on a Friday night for a weekend and face Monday morning much refreshed.
Whether or not this quote is actually something Seneca wrote, Stoicism suggests that happiness can be found through our acceptance of how things are and imparting new vigour to the mind certainly doesn’t have to be found by investing in an expensive holiday or retreat. If a few days camping is out of the question we can all get a similar feeling of new vigour from seeing your own locality with fresh eyes. You might take a different route to work or explore a local park you’ve never visited before or even read a different genre of novel or watch a new TV programme. Constant learning and removing yourself from your comfort zone can impart new vigour to your mind.
For those days when I am at home rather than travelling in our Blue Bus, I travel in my head by reading about other people’s journeys. Not surprisingly, I particularly have a weakness for buying travel books where the author stays in a campervan or motorhome and I can live the lifestyle vicariously through the pages of someone else’s trip and maybe learn a thing or two. If you are interesting in reading some of these travel books then read on for recommendations.
Over the years, I have noticed that these campervan and motorhome travel books can be divided into two sub-categories. There are those where the campervan or motorhome is the main event; these are all about the pleasure and fun of the ‘van lifestyle. The second category is books that are about a journey where the motorhome is incidental and just a practical and affordable way to travel.
My own journey with these books started when I read Hazel Jackson’s, Europe in a Motorhome; A mid-life Gap Year Around Southern Europe as part of my planning and preparation for our own mid-life gap year. I found this an excellent and well-written book that was useful before we headed off on our own trip around Europe. Helen Jackson and her partner, bored with the nine-to-five, took their teenage son on a journey in an RV called The Beast, selling their home and possessions.
Leaving winter behind Helen Jackson slept in a different place almost every night and packed in all sorts of activities. She has her share of anecdotes about robberies and small disasters, as well as friendships and beautiful places, all told with humour and sensitivity. She gives a good sense of what such a trip would be like and although Hazel Jackson’s trip was very different from our own in a small VW campervan, it was both a useful reference and an inspiration for our own journey. This book might inspire you to take a gap year but even if it doesn’t it is a good read from beginning to end.
Falling into the second category of journeys that just happen to be in a motorhome are some of my favourites. Some are out of print but you should be able to find them second-hand.
Helena Drysdale’s Mother Tongues, Travels through tribal Europe, focuses on the author’s search for the minority languages in Europe. She travelled around in a motorhome, with her partner and children and she tells lighthearted tales about the scrapes and difficulties they experienced. To save money Helen Drysdale and her family mostly wild-camped and they had a number of interesting experiences in sometimes beautiful and sometimes dodgy areas. She certainly has a way of engaging with strangers to explore the story and she writes well. The book is also a fantastic opportunity for the reader to reflect on how the language we use everyday shapes our attitudes.
Heidi’s Alp, One Family’s search for storybook Europe by Christina Hardyment is one of my will-read-again favourite motorhome related books. Christina Hardyment is a prolific writer and in this book she travels around Europe in a campervan called Bertha with her four children for eight weeks or so. They visit sites relating to childhood stories, exploring Andersons Fairy tales, Heidi’s Alp and Pinocchio’s Italy and bringing these places to life for the children. This is a joyful & honest personal tale with interesting information about these stories. ‘Our journey was not dependent on the places we found, but on how we chose to see them,’ Christina Hardyment tells the reader. This is a charming book, the highlight of which is a night in an Alpine hayloft, reliving Heidi’s story. A great read for those of us who have never grown up, Christina Hardyment will bring back happy memories of old favourites and reveal stories you never knew.
Susie Kelly is a writer who lives in France and Travels with Tinkerbelle: 6,000 Miles around France in a Mechanical Wreck was motivated by her realisation that she had visited very little of her adopted country. With her partner and dog, she bought an elderly campervan and travelled in a circuit around France exploring the history and culture along the way. If you are looking for a guide to owning a motorhome, this isn’t the book for you, but if you are looking for ideas of places to visit in France, this is a great start.
Martin Moran, climber and mountain guide who died recently in the Nanga Devi region, had a plan to climb all the Munros (mountains over 3,000 feet in Scotland) during the winter months back in 1985. Along with his winter clothing and ice-axe, his wife and a motorhome were key to making this possible. His book The Munros in Winter is more about the difficulties of winter mountaineering than about motorhoming but the sense of comfort he found each time he returns to the motorhome shines through.
The Coast Road: A 3,000 Mile Journey Round the Edge of England by Paul Gogarty won awards when it was published in 2005. As relevant today as then, this is a journey around the English coast and an account of how those coastal communities are faring. This travel book has that liberating feeling of a road trip with a purpose and he approaches most places he visits with sensitivity and enthusiasm, although I take issue with his initial description of Morecambe as, ‘After sedate Southport and bubbling Blackpool, Morecambe looks as if it has suffered a recent terrorist attack.’ Paul Gogarty is an excellent travel writer and I forgave him this slip and learnt many things from this well-researched book. From my notes I also see that my other small criticism is that he spends more time in the south than along our northern coasts.
There are any number of motorhome travel books out there that want to tell you how funny / hopeless / quirky they are. These books are often self-published and with some of the writers you will wonder how they even made it across the Channel. Here are examples I have read:
Many people like to name their motorhomes and in How Katie pulled Boris – with an American Motorhome (RV) in Europe by Keith Mashiter not only is the RV named but also the car they towed as well. Written in a format that is more personal diary than travel literature, this couple take a large RV-type motorhome to France and Spain during autumn and winter and the book might be of interest to others contemplating a trip in a similar size vehicle. Keith gives details of road numbers, prices paid, campsites used, places they ate, attractions they visited. He gives a very clear idea of what it is like travelling in such a huge motorhome and the practical difficulties they faced because of the size of the vehicle they took. He occasionally includes small vignettes of the people they met and encounters they had with other motorhomers and campsite owners. This is not a book that gets under the skin of France and Spain, they are very clearly passing through and this is not introspective travel writing. It is clear and concise and based on their experience
Two Clots in a Camper by Steve Coppard – This book has at its heart an appealing idea; two novice campervan owners on their first long trip in France, Spain and Portugal, written in a chatty style. However, there is too much concentration on the beer, wine and food they partake in during their trip to be of any real interest as travel literature. If this is your cup of tea then give it a go.
One Steppe Beyond: Across Russia in a VW Camperby Thom Wheeler. Thom Wheeler and Jo set off in a VW bay window called Max to Estonia. There they hear about the possibility of work in Vladivostok and enterprisingly set off across Russia. Thom’s account is honest and interesting. This means that the reader is told when his relationship with Jo is tested and when they are naive in their dealings with Russians. This innocence and sense of adventure gets them through and they enjoy the kindness of strangers many times. The book doesn’t give lots of practical details about shopping, banking or driving in Russia although he does tell his reader when the roads run out and they have to take the train and when they can’t access any currency. We hear about the problems getting a visa and crossing the border and the constant checking of papers. The narrative is interspersed with facts about a place. I couldn’t help but admire their spirit, travelling across Russia in 1997 and the beauty of the landscape in many places came through the words. The book also manages to give some sense of the vastness of Russia and the spirit of the people.
Never Ask Why by Barbara Phipps This travel book isn’t quite what I expected. I assumed it would be a tale of a woman in her 50s, grieving after the death of her husband, setting off on a journey in a motorhome to heal and discover herself; the book does cover this subject area but in a surprising way. The first section is about Helen; it is two years since her husband suddenly died and she decides to take control and buys a motorhome. Helen has an open and relaxed attitude and the reader feels confident that she will enjoy travels in her van. She has an urge to get away but worries about her two sons; they both still live at home, have good jobs and are in their 20s. Strangely, for someone who seems to have a good rapport with young people from the encounters we read about, Helen struggles to communicate with those dearest to her and she doesn’t tell her son’s about her travel plans or her wish that they would move out of the family home. The novel gives a light touch to relationships and events and I found I wanted more depth to her characters to understand their actions. In the second part of the novel we are transported to a different world of drug taking and murders and for some time this appears to have no connection with the first part of the novel, until the two worlds collide. Homorously and sometimes a little clumsily, Helen tells her reader how she learnt lessons from the people she meets on her travels and this was an interesting and diverting read.
Allie Sommerville’s Uneasy Rider, Confessions of a Reluctant Traveller – This claims to be an ‘antidote-to-travel book! Allie Somerville has written a book with a collection of stories about travelling in their camper van. This is not a then-we-went-here chronological travel book, Allie has grouped incidents together under chapter headings, for example small problems with the van and money concerns. Some chapters refer to just one incident and I simultaneously cringed and smiled at the Parador chapter when they struggled through narrow Spanish streets; rather them than me. Allie Somerville looks for the humour in situations and tries to convey this in her writing, which is a difficult task. However, she does manage to transmit to her reader the delight to be found from touring in her campervan, the pleasure of meeting various fellow campers and the entertaining encounters you can have at a campsite.
Do any readers have their own favourite campervan or motorhome travel books?
‘Once you have travelled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.’ From Pat Conroy in The Prince of Tides
Spend a lazy half-an-hour searching for travel quotes on the internet and you will find oodles and oodles of them. I do this occasionally when I am struggling with my writing and looking for inspiration for my own words; on one such occasion I discovered the quotation above. I made a note of it because the quote resonated and seemed to have some truth in it. Since then I have come back to it regularly and mulled it over.
It is a certainly a comforting thought that when I can no longer physically travel, I will continue to take journeys in my head. I like the thought of being able to play voyages out over and over again as often as I like. Those of us who have older friends who no longer travel as much as they once did will have witnessed the joy of this. Talking about my own travels can spark memories in these friends and give them a chance to reminisce and recall journeys they made and tell me their own travel stories from the past.
Perhaps my travel memories will be particularly strong. Being observant is part and parcel of being a travel writer, I make notes, take photographs and try and fix a place in my memory. Once I return home I spend my time editing photographs and writing travel articles and blog posts about my experiences and what I have seen. This process keeps the journeys constantly playing out in the forefront of my mind and they stay with me longer than if I had returned to another job.
The memories don’t disappear and therefore the trip doesn’t really end when the copy is sent to my editor or posted on the blog. I find I can be thinking about something else / anything else and a thought comes in sideways. I might be planning our next trip or doing something as mundane as wondering what to cook for our evening meal, a connection is made and recollections of a place will suddenly pop into ‘the quietest chambers’ of my mind.
Perhaps travel changes how my mind works and in more complex ways than I can ever explain. My travel-related research takes in the attractions, the history, the people and culture of a region and this breadth might help my mind establish new associations, tying together the new and old experiences and journeys. Perhaps these exciting labyrinthine links are one of the reasons that travel is so addictive.
A number of bloggers discuss travel addiction or dromomania. Like any addiction it seems that the constant new sights and sounds that travel provides can deliver a contented high to the brain. The brain likes this pleasurable sensory overload and will ask for more of this travel-gratification. While loving travel can be a demonstration of a passionate and adventurous nature, needing travel to thrive could be considered obsessive and damaging. And if this travel high only delivers if you visit new places you are on a road to compulsive journeys that take you way off the tourist trail.
I’m not concerned about dromomania. I am happy returning again and again to the same destination, there is always something new to find even in a well-visited area. Even in a familiar area, when we are travelling our days are packed with new experiences and this can be intoxicating. Yet, what I love the most on a trip is the stripped-down nature of our travelling life, everything feels happily straightforward, we are mostly in control of what is happening [although not always] and have the freedom to take each day as it comes. Whether we are an hour away from home or in a foreign country, I am always eager to relax, explore and get under the skin of a region.
We had a year travelling a few years ago and we had a ball but we both knew that we didn’t want to go for so long again. This was for various reasons but the main one was wanting to keep other relationships alive. Travelling for two or three months at a time is our compromise that works fairly well for us both; I get my fix of travelling that sustains me through a few months at home. Then I enjoy being where I am with my travel memories playing out over and over again in the quiet recesses of my mind until it is time to get our Blue Bus back on the road again!
Pat Conroy wrote many novels including The Price of Tides and The Great Santini.
I dislike feeling at home when I’m abroad, George Bernard Shaw
These words of George Bernard Shaw are in the opening scene of Widowers’ Houses, his first play to be staged in 1892. This opening scene is set in Remagen on the Rhine in Germany where Harry Trench and his friend William Cokane are travelling. William Cokane meets a Gentleman who does not share Cokane’s excitement at hearing English spoken while in Germany.
THE GENTLEMAN [to Cokane] We are fellow travellers, I believe, sir.
COKANE. Fellow travellers and fellow countrymen. Ah, we rarely feel the charm of our own tongue until it reaches our ears under a foreign sky. You have no doubt noticed that?
THE GENTLEMAN [a little puzzled] Hm ! From a romantic point of view, possibly, very possibly. As a matter of fact, the sound of English makes me feel at home; and I dislike feeling at home when I am abroad. It is not precisely what one goes to the expense for.
Many travellers will relate to this, none of us want to waste the expense of going abroad and then feel like we are in the UK. I do want places to feel different to home and in some way foreign; either the food, the language, the culture or the architecture should be shouting out to tell me I am somewhere other than home.
That said, on a campsite in another country hearing English spoken can be lovely. Much as I love talking to my partner, after a few weeks away it can be exciting to talk to someone else in ‘our own tongue’ rather than struggling in the local language where I have only limited small talk and mostly rely on gestures and a handful of words. Other travellers are a mine of information; they often give recommendations for good campsites or places to visit and they might have a top camping tip or know about roads to avoid or have entertaining travellers tales.
When we travelled around southern Europe for a year in our former campervan in 2009 / 2010 I was certainly very pleased to meet fellow English travellers as this sometimes meant I would find books to swap. We had nowhere near enough room in our VW to carry all the books I could read in 12 months and I relied on campsite book swaps and other campers to get new reading material. If there was someone from the UK around I would take the pile of books I had read round to them and ask nicely if they had anything to swap. This approach revealed some gems and was a great opener for making new friends.
‘How did you get into journalism,’ Terry Owen, the former Secretary of the Caravan Writers’ Guild asked me. I was visiting Terry and Alison to collect the crystal glass trophy I had won for the Douglas King Award for written journalism. Terry’s question was a good one that deserved a better answer than the waffle I came up with on the hoof. What I did say is that I have been practising and improving my writing for a long time. The night school class I took in English Literature in the 1980s got my fingers itching and I learnt from others while I worked on an alternative local magazine, Preston Other Paper. Studying for a degree in Geography and Environmental Management and a higher degree in Applied Public Health and keeping my first blog from 2009 helped to hone my writing skills so that in 2011 I was ready to dip my toe in to being paid for writing about life in a campervan. My journey to winning the Douglas King Award has been a long one and I continue to strive to ensure that my travel articles are entertaining, accurate and informative.
I write travel articles because my friends don’t always want to listen to my stories of my travels and the need to share the beautiful places I visit is strong. These travel articles are not aimed at my friends, my audience, the campervan and motorhome owner [or potential owner], is always at the forefront of my mind. In practice this means that my travel articles are not only the story of tours we have completed in our own ‘van, they include practical information about places you can park a long vehicle, where campsites or wild camping spots are and the state of the roads.
As well as improving my craft and remembering my audience I thoroughly research the area I am exploring. Typically, I always learn more snippets of information than I can fit in to one travel article but part of the art of a writer is knowing what fits the story you are telling and what might be fascinating but is a digression and needs to be ditched.
I like to weave a thread through my stories as this helps them to hang together so that they are more than a list of places we visited. This thread might be something personal such as a childhood memory or a visit to an area that has long been on my wish list. For other articles I might concentrate on the weather or the local food. Sometimes the narrative emerges from the research and I might link together literary connections or historical sites.
I am chuffed to bits when people I meet or on social media tell me how much they like a particular travel article I have written but winning an award for my journalism is a different level of recognition that has blown me away. It is such an honour to have my writing appreciated and judged to be award winning by other professionals and I still have an inner glow from having won.
I entered the Douglas King Award for the first time a few years ago and in August this year I thought i would give it another go. Checking through my articles that had been published in the preceding twelve months I chose to submit the article about a tour of Scotland’s beautiful west coast, published in MMM in January 2018 and a piece I was proud of. You can find the article in the list of my MMM articles if you want to have a read.
In September we had just arrived in Spain and I got a call to tell me that I was short-listed for the award; I was over the moon at receiving this recognition for my writing but certainly didn’t expect to hear anything more. So imagine my elation when the following month I heard that the judges had decided that my article was good enough to be declared the winner! The judges thought the piece was a, ‘Beautiful descriptive feature’ which certainly goes to prove that you don’t need perfect weather to write a good travel article, which must be a comfort to many UK based journalists. We were in the lovely Spanish coastal town of Peñíscola when I received this news and so I unfortunately missed the glittering presentation evening. I was both delighted and astounded to win and only Mr BOTRA got to see my blushes.
The Caravan Writers Guild covered the award on their website and MMM published a news story. It was a particularly big night for MMM as the magazine scooped two awards at the October presentation evening with their Road Test Editor also winning the John Wickersham Award for Video.
Both the Caravan Writers’ Guild’s awards are open to non-members and they manage these awards efficiently and courteously with the aim of encouraging excellence within the sector. Membership is available to those who have been writing and published for at least a year, so if you’re a motorhome or caravan journalist writing in print, on a blog or producing a vlog then give joining the Guild a thought and maybe enter a piece yourself in 2019.
You might laugh [please do] but when I came across this saying recently my literal mind skipped it’s metaphorical intention and took its meaning to the letter [I often do this]. My thoughts wandered to when we have walked an extra mile or so on a beach or in the hills or cycled just that bit further and felt smug as we left the crowds behind. The saying is spot on; going that extra mile often takes us to a quiet corner and to somewhere special that we can embrace as our own for a short time. By just taking a bit more effort I can enjoy an undisturbed experience of a location with the space and tranquillity to really see, smell and feel the place.
The quote attributed to Wayne Dyer, author and self-development guru, is, ‘It’s never crowded along the extra mile.’ After thinking about all those idyllic places we have found it eventually dawned on me that this quote isn’t to be read literally and instead encourages everyone to believe that by putting in the extra effort you can reach the top. My mind turned to those times when I have gone the extra mile on a task. Doing just the minimum required can be an easy option and I have times when I need to cruise through jobs because my mind is preoccupied with other stuff. But I feel much better about myself when I put the extra effort in and give my absolute best. And yet, the number of people who will reach the heights of the elite in any field is limited [or never crowded] and unfortunately not everyone can be outstanding otherwise outstanding becomes the average. For myself, I don’t expect to be award winning, I go the extra mile to compete against myself, stretching my performance and improving my skills.
I consider myself a slow writer; certainly each time I write a travel article or blog post I spend hours rigorously writing, editing and re-editing. I do this for two reasons; I am certainly terrified of the shame of making a mistake that makes it in to print [although they do and I have to deal with it] but I also want to produce work I can feel proud of. I constantly review, learn new techniques and apply these and I feel that my writing has improved over the years. I don’t go the extra mile for promotion or a higher salary, my editor is not pushing me to write differently, I am self-motivated to do better and throwing together a piece of writing with the minimum effort has never been an option. By going the extra mile I might not reach the top but I do maintain my self-respect.